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KNOXVILLE — Tennessee burley tobacco production could begin a sharp decline in the near future, a University of Tennessee tobacco specialist said Thursday.

Dr. Don Fowlkes of UT’s Agricultural Extension Service said a 45 percent cut in tobacco allotments for 2000, announced recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could threaten state production.

“This is the biggest cut we’ve ever had,” Fowlkes said. “In Tennessee we have enough quota left to maintain the production level we’ve been at for the past few years, but after this year that would not be the case.”

The USDA has cut burley quotas three years straight. It has had little effect on Tennessee growers because they usually produce well below the state’s quota, Fowlkes said.

However, the shrinking allotments will soon impact Tennessee tobacco farmers, he said.

“This raises concerns about the future of the industry,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to end up with a smaller industry but, hopefully, a viable industry.”

Tobacco, along with soybeans and cotton, is one of Tennessee’s leading cash crops, generating more than $200 million annually.