A number of flue-cured tobacco growers have taken on the challenge of growing burley tobacco for the first time this year. By all accounts, most have managed to get the new type up and growing, but now comes the hard part: getting burley harvested and cured.
Make sure whoever is cutting and spearing has mastered the process. It involves a tomahawk and a pointed cone over which you drive five or six burley stalks, and it can be hazardous. “If you don't know what you are doing, you might end up with a slashed leg or a spear through the hand,” said Jack Loudermilk, Extension chairman of Yadkin County N.C. “Get someone experienced to do it if you can.”
Harvest four to five weeks after topping to maximize “flyings” — the lowest stalk position in burley — and tips, which sell for the highest prices, says David Smith, N.C. Extension tobacco specialist.
Place the leaf butts toward the afternoon sun to reduce sunscald on the leaves. And don't get in too much of a hurry after you cut and spear the stalks.
“If I didn't know much about curing burley, I would definitely not plan on only a two-hour wilt,” says Darrell Mundy, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Tennessee. “I would try to leave it out for three days if I could. That would take care of any sunburn and relieve me of the drudgery of moving a lot of moisture to the barn.”
The weight you can remove by wilting is considerable, and if you don't take advantage of this opportunity, it will affect every thing you do in the barn.
But weather may pose a problem. If your burley gets rained on, you may wind up with mud on the leaves, a condition buyers don't like at all. So if there is a prediction of rain that may force you to move sooner.
Once your burley is in your curing structure, again it pays to be patient.
“You don't want to cure burley in two or three weeks: You want it to take six to eight weeks,” says Mundy. “If your burley is curing too fast because of dry conditions or wind, you need to shut the house tight. But if on the other hand you have barn rot, then you have to get air in there. You can tell if you have barn rot by reaching in among the leaves and feeling for slick spots or slime.”
A good cure requires a daily average humidity of about 65 percent to 70 percent, says George Duncan, a University of Kentucky agricultural engineer. “This will sustain enough leaf moisture for the chemical changes needed to produce the tan and brown leaf colors.”
But temperatures below 50 to 60 degrees are detrimental, he said.
Consecutive days of high or low humidity can also cause problems. If the humidity is above 80 percent for three consecutive days in a warm environment, bacterial action can accelerate rotting. Humidity below 50 percent for several days, on the other hand, can desiccate the leaf moisture, stop chemical reactions and set undesirable green or yellow colors in the leaf.
So during warm humid weather, when the tobacco is still green-to-yellow in color, Duncan suggests keeping the barn ventilator doors open every day to allow maximum air ventilation.
If the weather turns dry for a week or longer and the tobacco is not pliable at night, open the barn ventilator doors at night to allow any nighttime moisture into the barn, Duncan says. Then close them early in the morning to contain as much moisture as possible during the hot, dry part of the day.
The situation is a little different in the plastic-covered field-curing structures that have become so popular on Tennessee and western North Caroling burley farms in recent years.
In these, the curing environment is controlled primarily by the spacing between sticks and by “side cover” management, says Duncan. Sticks can and should be spaced closer together in these structures than in conventional barns. An average spacing of 3.5 to 4.5 inches generally works well, depending on how large the tobacco is, how much wilting has occurred and weather conditions.
Place your polyethylene covers over the structures soon after hanging, although if the leaves are wet, allow them to dry first before covering.
Much of North Carolina's new burley this year will be cured in structures built for poultry, and Mundy says that might work just fine.
“Chicken houses can be a blessing for curing burley, and I have used them myself,” he says. “But make sure there are no chicken feathers in the house when you hang it. If there is any chicken or ammonia smell, it may get on the tobacco and attract the attention of the buyers.”
The side curtains on a chicken house can be lowered or raised, a great help in curing with air.
The results will be best if the house is no more than 32 feet wide to avoid pockets of stagnant moist air, Mundy says.