Tobacco has always been one of the most labor-intensive farm enterprises around. But that is rapidly coming to an end.
Flue-cured tobacco has already moved to a heavily mechanized production program, and the flood of new burley growers has propelled the quick development of labor-saving machines.
One of the burley beneficiaries is Dewey Hopper of Madison N.C., a long-time flue-cured grower who planted 110 acres of flue-cured in 2006 and needed something else to supplement it.
“I wanted to take on an alternate crop with a little more profit,” he says. “But I was reluctant to choose something that required a lot of labor.”
In the not too distant past, that requirement would have eliminated burley tobacco.
But because burley harvest technology had just become available, he decided burley was a realistic choice and planted 30 acres.
With a neighbor, he purchased a notching cutter made by the Kirpy Corporation of France and built plastic-covered outdoor structures with high tensile wire to hang the burley.
It was a big upfront investment, but it enormously reduced the labor required to produce burley.
“I think we can pay back the cost of the machine and the structures over a period of five years,” says Hopper, whose farm is near Greensboro. “I wouldn't have wanted to grow burley if it required as much labor as flue-cured did when I first started out.”
There is even more mechanization in the future for burley, says Mike Boyette, North Carolina State University Extension engineer.
“If we are still growing burley in five years, I think it will be substantially mechanized, especially the stripping process,” he says. “There are innovations yet to come. As long as innovations save the grower money and do not negatively affect quality, I believe they will be supported by the companies.”
The basis for the burley mechanization that has taken place in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of Virginia and North Carolina has been the almost complete abandonment by the new growers of sticks as a method for hanging stalks to cure.
“If burley is going to come to eastern North Carolina, it cannot be on a stick,” says Boyette. “People aren't going to work like that.”
Instead, the trend among new growers is to harvest with machines that put a notch in the stalk when they cut it off near the ground. The stalks are then hung by the notches in barns or in outdoor structures strung with wire.
But in the leading burley states of Kentucky and Tennessee, there seems to be little interest in hanging burley on wire or in harvesting it with a machine. Growers are staying solidly with the traditional practices of harvesting stalks by hand using a hatchet-like tool and skewering the stalks on sticks. They are then suspended from the sticks to dry.
George Duncan, University of Kentucky Extension agricultural engineer, says that in his state, “The stick method is going to be around for a long time. Any option to it (here) is going to have to be labor saving, functional and at the same time economically feasible.”
Right now, there is little pressure to find new curing arrangements because there is more than enough conventional barn space available.
To take advantage of that situation, farmers are frequently not hanging tobacco as high in the barns as they used to, maybe only two or three tiers, says Duncan. “They do this because it saves labor and contributes to hanging efficiency.”
In flue-cured, there seem to be no more quantum leaps in technology waiting on the horizon. But adoption of the existing technology continues, says Boyette.
“What we have seen most often in the last few years is investments in mechanical box loading systems,” he says. “They load the boxes with thin uniform layers of leaf and incorporate a system to weigh the quantity of green leaf in each box.”
Making such an investment has both energy efficiency and quality improvement benefits, says Grant Ellington, North Carolina State University Extension associate in engineering.
“Uneven loading allows air to pass through less densely loaded areas while bypassing more densely loaded areas,” says Ellington. “Boxes that are not uniformly loaded may result in drying at different rates due to the variations in bulk density. Uneven drying results in longer curing times, thus increasing the electricity and fuel consumption per cure.” Uneven loading or overloading can result in scalded or improperly cured tobacco, he adds.
A lot of people think that in this country, we are reaching the end of the era of easy availability of labor, says Boyette.
“Before, when labor was cheap, there was little incentive to mechanize,” he says. “But now we can't grow tobacco like our competitors overseas. To be competitive we are going to have to mechanize.”