The State of Things…in the Tobacco Patch

— Written By Mitch Williams and last updated by
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Well, we have had a very frustrating growing season in Lee County. There is an old saying, if your corn looks good…everything else doesn’t. This can be said for our tobacco crop in 2020. First we started off with an unseasonably cool and wet spring. This drastically prolonged transplanting season and restricted early season root growth. Fast forward to July, we have multiple weeks of high 90’s, high humidity and little rain. Poor root systems paired with this mid summer weather pattern, tobacco has begun to suffer. Luckily, we have caught rain almost weekly; let us hope we can catch timely showers for the rest of the growing season.

Insect and disease pressure has been of great concern this season as well. Early season thrip pressure was very high. Normally, tray drenches or in furrow applications of insecticides, paired with an over the top insecticide application of orthene, provide adequate to excellent control of thrips. The early rain washed the in-furrow insecticides deep into the soil profile; coupled with reduced root development and slow plant development, tobacco plants were not able to utilize these applications. Due to wet weather, it was also impossible to make timely orthene applications, resulting in much higher thrips pressure than we would like to see. Thankfully Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus incidence, due to thrips damage, has been much lower than I thought it would be; target spot however, is widespread across the county.

Target spot, Rhizoctonia solani is a fungus that survives very well in North Carolina soils. Cool weather, prolonged leaf moisture and high humidity caused the target spot to develop on the sand lugs relatively early. Once the target spot starts, it continues to move up the plant. Eventually it will kill each leaf that it contacts if left untreated. Our only fungicide labeled for target spot in tobacco is Quadris. Quadris has the active ingredient azoxystrobin. Azoxystrobin does not stop target spot, but it does slow the spread of this disease. Removal of infected leaves does help slow the spread of target spot. This is one reason delugging is recommended for North Carolina tobacco production. By removing the infected leaves, you are removing the fungus spores that allow the disease to spread and you are allowing more air to circulate through the plant. Increased air circulation in the plant canopy allows the leaves to dry much more quickly, reducing the formation of new fungus spores.

Tobacco budworms have also been a major issue in 2020. This year’s tobacco budworm moth flight lasted roughly 4 weeks, though minor localized moth flights lasted as long as 6 weeks in some areas. Slow early season growth, combined with early soggy field conditions, made it difficult to control budworms. At this point in the season, budworms are of little concern and instead, we turn our attention to hornworm control. Thankfully hornworm numbers have not been particularly high or requiring a separate application to control..

I have found a few hotspots of flea beetles in the county as of the end of July. Flea beetles can be extremely detrimental to tobacco leaves. North Carolina State University is recommending using products such as Exirel, offering 3 weeks of residual flea beetle and hornworm control. This is a very costly application to make, scouting is recommended before using a product as expensive as Exirel.

Our crop is going to be late this year. Some growers are just beginning to harvest lugs and cutters while others have not yet begun harvest. I advise against further fertilizer applications at this point in the season as this may cause the crop to be too green during harvest, causing difficulty during curing and reduced market value. Hopefully the first frost will be late this year and our farmers will be profitable in 2020. This is the state of things….in the tobacco patch.

Mitchell Williams is the Agriculture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.