Related ATTRA Publications
NCAT Organic Crops Workbook
T here are several species of tobacco, all of them native to the Americas. Nico- tiana tabacum L. is the most widely grown, providing virtually all the domestic leaf used in commercial production of cigars, cigarettes, and smokeless tobacco products. Another species, N. rustica, more commonly grown overseas, has generated interest because of its high nicotine content, useful in the making of insecticides and for other specialized uses. However, N. rustica is not a well-domesticated species and is reputedly difficult to grow, in the absence of varietal improvement. A selection of tobacco books, focusing on N. rustica, is offered by the Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds, published by the seed company J.L. Hudson, Seeds- man (www.JLHudsonSeeds.net).
Backyard growers have established at least two forums to discuss micro-production and curing of tobacco for home use. See www. HomeGrownTobacco.yuku.com and www. techgroups.yahoo.com/group/Home-Grown- Tobacco. It should be emphasized that while organic regulations exempt very small grow- ers (under $5,000 annual sales) from formally certifying, they are prohibited from selling to processors or using the USDA seal. In addi- tion, some states prohibit the sale of home- grown and home-processed tobacco.
As a crop, tobacco is very valuable but also very labor-intensive, even with modern mechanization. As such, it has been con- sidered the only feasible high-value crop for small family farms in certain mountain- ous parts of the U.S. that have poor soil. Information about the lengths to which Ken- tucky has gone to compensate its farmers for the loss of tobacco allotments can be found at www.uky.edu/ag/TobaccoEcon/pub- lications/Mcintyre.html. Some conventional farmers have resorted to producing phar- macrop (transgenic) tobacco on contract. Sources working with transgenic tobacco say that safeguards against cross-pollina- tion include removing flower stalks and con- ducting transgenic tobacco trials in coun- ties that have not traditionally produced tobacco. China is a major source of trans- genic tobacco seed.
This publication will focus on techniques appropriate to organic tobacco production. Resources for conventional production can be obtained through archived Coopera- tive Extension publications, USDA, and, of course, sources such as grower networks or processors that contract for production.
Quality factors are extremely important to the marketability of tobacco. High-quality leaves are high in carbohydrates and pot- ash; low in nitrogen, fiber, calcium, and ash; and of uniform color. Surprisingly, moder- ate to low nicotine levels are preferred for high-quality tobacco, despite the fact that nicotine is the chemical responsible for the stimulating effect of tobacco use.
Factors affecting crop quality include soil type, fertilization, cultural practices, sea- son, and climate. Current tobacco growing regions typically have an annual rainfall of 40 to 45 inches, though it is somewhat less in the Midwest. Summer rainfall and ade- quate humidity, especially in the fall, are major factors that delimit growing regions. Tobacco is unsuited to areas with high winds or with alkaline soils high in nitro- gen. As a result, commercial production of tobacco in the United States is located almost entirely in regions east of the Missis- sippi River and the midwestern states that border it. Soil types within any region also affect tobacco quality. Light tobaccos with a fine texture, normally preferred for cigars and cigarettes, are typically grown on sandy loams with a moderate level of fertility. In contrast, heavy clay loams with high fertil- ity produce heavy, coarse plants.
The culture of tobacco can be divided into several key areas: 1) transplant production;
field growing; 3) harvest; 4) curing; and
marketing. (Marketing tobacco since
2003 has been covered in the Foreword.)
Traditional Bed Preparation: Tradition- ally, tobacco is seeded into beds or cold frames, and then transplanted to the pro- duction field when plants reach a height
Organic Tobacco Production