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Burley tobacco farmers face tough weather, economy

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It’s been years since John Dunlap started growing burley tobacco again in his Loudon County farm.

But this year may not have been the best year to start growing the popular East Tennessee crop.

“It’s been dry this summer, we didn’t get but about half we expected from the tobacco,” said Dunlap.

Dunlap is about to sell 66 bales of tobacco, but he expected more than 120 bales going into the harvesting season.

Dunlap’s troubles represent a trend across the state.

“At the peak we were about 50-55 thousand acres. That would’ve been around the mid-1900’s. Our more typical level has been around 35-thousand acres,” said UT burley tobacco specialist Dr. Paul Denton.

Denton blames not just this year’s dry conditions, but the removal of federal burley tobacco pricing and decreasing consumer demand as reasons for the drop in numbers.

In Loudon County, only two burley tobacco farmers remain. There were more than 300 growers 20 years ago.

“This is an important part of these rural communities that still have tobacco growing in there,,” said UT Tobacco Growers Research director Jane Starnes. “And in these family farms, it’s a way to continue their legacy.”

Even though Dunlap, who is one of those two remaining burley tobacco farmers in the county, had a bad first year, he’s already getting ready for next summer. All he asks for next year is for better weather.

Kentucky leads the nation in burley tobacco crops.

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