LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – A fungus that attacks tobacco plants was found in eastern Kentucky and has already spread, the first reported U.S. outbreak this year, a tobacco specialist said.

Blue mold was found on young tobacco plants being raised at two locations in anticipation of spring planting in Magoffin County, about 170 miles east of Louisville, said University of Kentucky tobacco pathologist Kenny Seebold. It destroyed two farmers’ plants and spread to neighboring Morgan County, he said.

Seebold said Friday the outbreak occurred about a month earlier than usual in Kentucky, the nation’s top producer of burley, an ingredient in cigarettes. It marked the second straight year the nation’s first tobacco blue mold report came from Kentucky.

“With us almost out of the tobacco business, that was really shocking,” said Russell Sparks, Magoffin County agricultural extension agent.

Burley production in the Appalachian county once covered about 800 acres but has dwindled below 100 acres, Sparks said. The two affected farmers are hoping to still get a tobacco crop planted, he said.

“They’re out hustling now trying to find ready-to-set transplants because they were ready to set next week,” he said.

Seebold said blue mold was reported in Morgan County at three locations where tobacco seedlings also were being raised for eventual planting. The disease caused a total loss at those locations, he said.

Officials aren’t sure what caused the outbreak. It could have come in on tobacco plants shipped from the South or could have originated locally, Seebold said.

With planting under way across Kentucky, he urged growers to apply chemicals to tobacco still in greenhouses or outdoor float beds. Eastern Kentucky farmers should consider the same for tobacco that’s already been planted, he said. Blue mold can reduce yields if unchecked.

“We’re alarmed but we’re urging people to be rational,” Seebold said. “Don’t panic – just scout the plants and go ahead and begin protective fungicide application and just assume there’s a level of risk.”

A blue mold outbreak in 1996 cost Kentucky growers an estimated $200 million.

Last year, it caused minimal loss. The state produced 143.5 million pounds of burley then, its smallest crop since 1927 as many farmers quit growing it after a tobacco buyout that ended a Depression-era program that set price and production controls.

University of Kentucky tobacco production specialist Gary Palmer has predicted a slight increase in burley acreage this year. Most of the production is in central and western Kentucky.

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