Perspectives Online

Down From the Mountain. Burley tobacco in the piedmont and eastern North Carolina? College faculty members are working to make it so. By Dave Caldwell


To harvest burley tobacco, a machine pulled behind a tractor cuts and notches the plants. Workers such as these then load the plants onto a rack on a trailer that is pulled through the fields.
Courtesy Mike Boyette

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Aflue-cured tobacco growers absorbed repeated quota cuts in recent years and tobacco acreage plummeted, researchers, Extension specialists, agents and growers looked for alternatives to tobacco, crops that would be just as lucrative on relatively small acreages.

Well, it appears they may have found one. It's tobacco, burley tobacco, that is.

Up until this year, burley was grown primarily in western North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Unlike flue-cured tobacco, which is cured in heated barns, burley is air-cured, hung in unheated barns and allowed to cure over a period of weeks rather than days.


A notcher/cutter prepares tobacco stalks for collection.
Courtesy Mike Boyette
With the tobacco buyout and the disappearance of quotas and price supports, the price of both flue-cured and burley tobacco is expected to drop. Most growers appear to feel that if they're going to continue to grow tobacco, they're going to have to grow more.

Yet for many burley growers, getting bigger isn't an option, says Dr. David Smith, Philip Morris Professor of Crop Science. Burley is typically grown on very small acreages, often less than an acre. Many burley growers apparently have decided to take their buyout money and stop growing tobacco. This has left tobacco companies scrambling to find the burley they need. Smith says a typical cigarette blend is 35 percent each burley and flue-cured tobacco and the rest Oriental tobacco.

As it has become apparent that a market for burley may be available, farmers in different parts of the country are moving to try to fill that void. Smith says farmers in places like Mississippi, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania are growing burley this year.

And with a $264,800 grant from Golden LEAF, one of the agencies set up to fund economic development as tobacco production declined, Smith is part of an effort to help growers in piedmont and eastern North Carolina grab as much of the burley market as possible.


The stalks are hung on portable racks.
Courtesy Mike Boyette
Burley and flue-cured tobacco are distinctly different crops, Smith points out, particularly when it comes to curing.

"Curing (burley) is a slow process," says Smith. "You want it to cure slowly, to go from green to yellow to brown. If the temperature or humidity is too high, it rots. If it's too dry, it doesn't turn brown.

"The question is, can we cure it consistently (in the piedmont and eastern North Carolina) from year to year?"

A particularly dry fall could be problematic, Smith points out, as could a hurricane. Yet Smith adds that an estimated 250 North Carolina growers who haven't produced burley before are doing so this year.

Smith and Dr. Loren Fisher, Crop Science Extension Specialist, have planted trial plots of burley at agricultural research stations in Reidsville, Rocky Mount, Whiteville and Kinston, looking at factors such as planting and harvest date, sucker control and fertilization. They're also conducting on-farm tests in Rockingham and Wake counties.


A trailer like the one in the foreground may be used to move racks.
Courtesy Mike Boyette
Harvest date will be particularly important, Smith points out. A September harvest, when the temperature and humidity begin to change to allow optimum curing, appears best.

Disease may also be a problem. None of the burley varieties grown in the United States is resistant to Granville wilt, but it's not a problem in burley growing areas. It may, however, be a problem in piedmont and eastern North Carolina. Smith says several Brazilian varieties have Granville wilt resistance but are susceptible to black shank.

Allen Broadwell, a research technician in Plant Pathology, is experimenting with fumigating the soil to manage disease, while Dr. David Shew, professor of Plant Pathology, is screening burley varieties for Granville wilt resistance. Blue mold could also be a problem - burley is more susceptible than flue-cured tobacco - and some Golden LEAF funding is going to enhance the blue mold forecasting system already in place in the College.

Growing burley, at least the way most growers now produce it, is much more labor-intensive than growing flue-cured tobacco, and that's where Dr. Mike Boyette, Philip Morris Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, comes into the picture.


Unlike flue-cured tobacco, burley is air cured in barns or other structures.
Photo by Dave Caldwell
Boyette is working on mechanizing burley harvesting and curing, which is done by hand. Burley growers now cut the stalk of the plant by hand, then spear the stalk, with leaves still attached, onto a 4-foot-long stake with a sharpened point. These stakes are then hung in barns or other structures, and the burley allowed to cure.

"If burley is going to come to eastern North Carolina, it cannot be put on a stick," says Boyette. "People aren't going to work like that."

Boyette is working to adapt technologies developed at the University of Kentucky, where engineers have made considerable progress toward mechanization. He envisions a system that makes use of a machine he calls a notcher/cutter to harvest burley and racks that allow curing in the field.

A notcher/cutter will cut a tobacco plant at the bottom of the stalk and slice an angled notch in the stalk near the bottom of the plant. Both cuts are made at roughly the same time as the machine moves through a field. The plants are then hung upside down from the angled notch on a wire mesh that is stretched across what Boyette calls a curing rack.

The racks are made so that they can be stacked against each other in the field as they fill with burley stalks. The grower then covers the racks with plastic sheeting, and the tobacco cures in the field. Boyette is using a $172,000 grant from Philip Morris USA along with Golden LEAF funding to build notcher/cutters, curing racks and other equipment to move burley from place to place in a field. He'll experiment with the system this fall.


David Smith (left) and Mike Boyette are working to determine how best to grow and cure burley tobacco in the piedmont and eastern North Carolina.
Photo by Dave Caldwell
The gold standard for mechanized burley harvesting is a machine at the University of Kentucky that engineers there call "Big Red." Big Red is self-propelled and cuts, notches and hangs burley stalks without the aid of human hands. Using Big Red, one person can harvest a field of burley, leaving the stalks hanging on racks ready to cure.

There's only one Big Red, however, and it's in Kentucky, and Boyette says there's not time this year to build another one. This year, those growers outside western North Carolina who are growing burley will have to do the best they can.

This year will be a learning experience, both for North Carolina tobacco growers and for College faculty.

"It's an exciting time, it really is," says Smith. He calls the effort to learn quickly how best to grow, harvest and cure burley tobacco throughout North Carolina "old-fashioned Extension work."

Smith adds, "There's a lot riding on this. If it works, we could have 50,000 acres of burley over a period of time."

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