There will be at least two harvesting units new to the United States in the field this summer, and if they perform well, they could lead to a new direction in burley production.

Compared to flue-cured, harvesting of burley has traditionally involved an enormous amount of hand labor. That's because in the traditional style, a worker on foot will cut each burley stalk close to the ground with a hatchet, then “spear” four or five stalks on a stick. The loaded stick would later be lifted into a curing barn and hung from poles running up and down the barn.

That took a lot of man hours. But for some time, it has been know that you can use a machine equipped with a saw out front that would cut off the stalk close to the ground, then transport the stalks to a conveyance that will transport them to a curing facility of one sort or another.

The old Powell Manufacturing Co., manufactured just such a machine in the 1990s, but it never caught on, perhaps because it was designed to load relatively expensive “curing racks” that would be left in the field to cure under plastic.

That model — the Powell 6215 — has been modified considerably, and MarCo, which now owns the Powell line of tobacco equipment, is introducing a new version this year. Called the Powell 6026, it is designed to fit the needs of the new burley growers in Virginia and North Carolina. Called the Powell 6026 and mounted on a three-point hitch, it cuts the stalk with one blade and notches it with another. Then a conveyor belt carries it to a wagon following the harvester.

No sticks are involved, an enormous savings in labor. The stalks are hung from wire set up in whatever structure the farmer wants to use. “We think we can cut the cost of harvesting in the field by half compared to conventional cutting and spearing,” says Tom Pharr, president of MarCo Mfg.

There is already some farmer experience with the cut-and-notch approach to burley harvest. Richard Whitaker and his son Shane, who farm in the North Carolina Piedmont near Greensboro, experimented with a new burley harvester when they grew burley for the first time in 2005. The Whitakers are flue-cured growers who use a DeCloet combine on their flue-cured. They had little interest in the traditional labor-intensive method of harvesting burley.

“We never took a machete to the field,” said the elder Whitaker. “We wanted to mechanically harvest it all, and we succeeded.”

They tested several different versions, but the one they want this year is the Powell 6026. “We found last year that with this machine, in eight hours with eight workers, you can harvest and hang four acres,” said Shane.

The Whitakers cured their notched burley in abandoned chicken houses outfitted with high tensile wire. They grew 6.5 acres of burley last year and are growing 12 this year, along with 130 acres of flue-cured, twice what they had last year.

The Whitakers also experimented with the original Powell 6215 design. Their workers stood on the harvester and loaded stalks directly on frames that were cured in the field under plastic.

This approach had some advantages but the frames were prohibitively expensive, said Richard Whitaker. “They were problematic. They cost $228 per frame. You need 26 per acre, so the frames' cost would be more than the harvester's.”

The Whitakers think that the harvest labor problem for burley may be on its way to being solved. Once that is done, Shane thinks some sort of mechanization of the stripping process is going to be needed. “The stripping procedure is what will hold us up,” he said. “That is when our labor traditionally leaves so we are short handed. We need to be able to bring our burley in case more easily.”

MarCo won't be the only company with a mechanical burley harvester this season. Kirpy, a European manufacturer, has made a stalk-curing and notching machine for French growers for a number of years.

Mounted on a three-point hitch, it cuts the stalks with an offset blade, then conveys the stalks upright to the other side of the tractor and onto a trailer which carries the stalks to a curing facility. Here again, conventional barns aren't necessary — any building that you can hang with wire will do fine.

The Kirpy harvester is not new, but it has never been used in this country. There will be at least seven units operating in the U.S. this year, says Mike Boyette of the North Carolina Extension Service: One at North Carolina State, two at a tobacco company, and four on farms.

In the new world of American burley, the old labor-intensive ways are just not going to do the job.

“If growers are to take maximum advantage of the big demand for U.S. burley tobacco, they must mechanize at every step in the production process,” said Boyette. “These new machines and the others that are bound to be developed will be a huge leap in the right direction.”