Saturday, August 11, 2001

Blue mold could jeopardize China tobacco deal

Ky. farmers chided for not fighting harder to eradicate fungus

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE — Tobacco farmers in Kentucky may be hurting their chances of selling their crop abroad by not trying harder to eradicate the fungal disease known as blue mold.

        Bill Nesmith, a plant pathologist for the University of Kentucky, said farmers need to know that blue mold isn't only damaging their crops: It also may be damaging a hoped-for deal to export U.S. tobacco to China.

        The United States and China signed an agreement in February that could open the way for tobacco exports. That agreement requires that tobacco sold in China be free of blue mold reproductive spores.

        China has refused to accept U.S. tobacco for the past 11 years because officials there fear imports could introduce blue mold to their own crops.

        Mr. Nesmith said farmers in Kentucky haven't done enough to combat the fungus this year.

        “They're letting it run rampant,” Mr. Nesmith said.

        “Part of what people need to realize is that if they're interesting in exporting this crop, they're not sending a very good message to China.”

        Blue mold, which thrives in the cool, damp conditions that have been present in Kentucky for most of the growing season, can spread over long distances via airborne spores, and has infected a large part of the crop this year. Mild cases of blue mold cause spotting on leaves, but the fungus can penetrate the stem and choke off the flow of water and nutrients to the plant.

        “Most farmers have waited entirely too long to do anything about it,” Mr. Nesmith said. “We've got some people who have lost nearly all their crop. It's too early for us to predict what the losses will be.”

        Mr. Nesmith said Kentucky farmers have been planting larger crops to absorb losses rather than taking the necessary steps to combat the fungus with early applications of fungicides.

        Others, he said, are depending on surplus tobacco from last year to offset their losses.

        Tom Melton, a professor and tobacco specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said the blue mold outbreak in his state was the worst in at least 20 years.

        Farmers now have begun harvesting the plants, so the fungus no longer poses a threat.

        “We had the most fungicide sprayed this year that I have ever seen sprayed,” Mr. Melton said. “I'd say the vast majority of our farmers were spraying.”

        Mr. Melton said samples are being taken of the crop to test for the reproductive spores, called oospores, as required by the agreement with China.

        “We'll know for sure whether the tobacco going out has a chance of sending blue mold to China, and anything that has a chance won't go,” he said.

        Mr. Nesmith said a heat wave that pushed temperatures into the 90s across the region in recent weeks slowed the disease, but cooler temperatures expected today likely will cause blue mold to spread farther.

        Henry West, vice president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-op Association in Lexington, said China has used blue mold as an excuse not to buy U.S. tobacco.

        “I understand their concern about blue mold,” Mr. West said. “It is a very devastating disease, but I believe we can overcome that hurdle.

        “They're interested in making a premium blended cigarette, and they need some of our high-quality burley to make that cigarette.”

        Mr. West visited China in May pushing for sales of U.S. tobacco. He said he left feeling that headway is being made.

        “It's not a done deal, but we're a step closer,” he said.

        “Each time we talk to them, we're a step closer. We'll just have to be patient, and eventually, I think, we'll make a sale.”


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