updated 6/23/2005 9:03:07 AM ET 2005-06-23T13:03:07

The broad, yellow leaves of burley tobacco will lend their distinctive hue to David M. Zimmerman’s fields this summer as he and many other growers look to cash in on the crop for the first time since the Depression.

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Enough Pennsylvania growers have planted burley tobacco — a key ingredient in cigarettes — that it may stem the state’s long slide in tobacco production, a window that opened last year with the lifting of the decades-old federal quota system.

“Just about everyone I know is growing burley,” said Zimmerman on his 57-acre tobacco, corn and potato farm in Lancaster County, the center of Pennsylvania’s tobacco country.

The state projects that burley planting will translate into Pennsylvania’s largest one-year increase in tobacco acreage in 25 years. If burley production is successful and brings higher prices, it could end a 90-year decline in tobacco growing north of the Mason-Dixon Line and prompt at least a modest increase in acreage, many say.

The removal of the quota is having an opposite effect across the burley belt of Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, where growers will be paid to stop raising the crop. There, prices will drop and a 30 percent decrease in production is expected.

Efforts could be made to grow burley in non-quota states such as Louisiana and Illinois, but for now, “everybody’s talking about Pennsylvania,” said Daniel Green, a spokesman for the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association in Lexington, Ky.

Much of Pennsylvania’s tobacco is planted in Lancaster County, where large Amish and Mennonite families can muster the farmhands necessary for the labor-intensive burley tobacco harvest, and more cheaply than hired labor. For instance, Zimmerman, a Mennonite, has two sons and daughters who help him on the farm.

Burley’s return to Pennsylvania comes 67 years after the federal government placed a quota on burley growing to ensure that prices remained stable. Pennsylvania’s farmers rejected the quotas because they opposed government intervention, and instead grew more bitter varieties of tobacco used sparingly in cigarettes.

In recent years, however, cigarette manufacturers have increasingly bought foreign-grown tobacco, trapping American growers in an uncompetitive framework of price supports.

The outcry prompted Congress to lift the quota last year, freeing Pennsylvania farmers to once again grow burley.

About 2,400 acres of burley tobacco have been planted in the state this year out of a total of 5,200 acres of tobacco, according to agricultural projections released March 1.

Although the Keystone State supplies only 1 percent of the nation’s tobacco, any increase could represent a first step toward reviving the crop, which carpeted 49,000 Pennsylvania acres in 1918.

Growers hope that burley will bring as much as $1.50 per pound — above the $1.35 average tobacco farmers in Pennsylvania received last year. At 1,800 to 2,000 pounds per acre, farmers can pull in $2,700 to $3,000 per acre at that price, many times what they would get for most crops.

Buyers, including the nation’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, have been signing contracts and negotiating with growers in Pennsylvania.

“It’s created a little competition, which is one thing that’s really been lacking for tobacco growers,” said Jeff Stoltzfus, an agriculture instructor with the Eastern Lancaster County School District.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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