When Danny Nelson first grew burley near Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2000, the longtime flue-cured grower came to a conclusion: Labor is a much more complex issue when you are growing burley.

He found this out growing two acres a year in four seasons, from 2000 to 2003. Because of development pressure on his farm, he has since relocated to Warsaw, N.C., in the Coastal Plain and is growing flue-cured but not burley this year. But he nevertheless has some experience to share with anyone growing the type for the first time.

“Burley is a lot more labor-intensive than flue-cured,” he says now. “And the labor needs come at different times: Once you harvest flue-cured, much of your work is done. But with burley, it seems like over half your labor usage in burley comes at harvest and after.”

That's because, you are not just pulling the leaves off, curing them and baling them. Instead, you cut the stalk close to the ground, spear it onto a stick, leave it in the field, if possible, for a few days to “wilt.” Then you hang it in a barn or on a plastic-covered outdoor structure until it is cured. Finally, you strip the cured leaf from the stalks, separate it into grades and bale it.

Not only is the distribution of labor needs different in burley, but it is spread out over a longer period.

“Every year I grew burley, my help had left before it was dry enough to strip,” says Nelson. “A lot didn't get stripped until the last week of December.”

But he was able to find local workers to do his stripping. For all the rest of the burley practices, he says, he was able to train his migrant flue-cured labor to do the work without much difficulty.

Some other lessons Nelson has learned:

  • Not only is meeting the labor requirement a special challenge for new burley growers, obtaining curing facilities is a challenge too. Compared to flue-cured, burley needs a lot of drying space. Nelson managed to find enough old flue-cured stick barns on and around his Piedmont farm. After adaptation for better ventilation, they performed satisfactorily, he says. But there are problems with curing burley in stick barns, and he wouldn't use them if he were getting into burley for the long-term.

    “If I were growing burley for the first time now and needed space, and if I wasn't sure about the future, I would build outdoor curing structures,” says Nelson. “They are cheaper.

    “But if I were sure I would be growing it for a long period, I would look at building permanent structures with multiple tiers. It might be possible to design them to move the tobacco to the upper tiers by some kind of conveyor system.”

  • Bad weather during burley harvest can be a real problem, Nelson has found.

    “You need to let it wilt two days after you cut it, and you want to be sure that those are two days that it doesn't rain,” says Nelson. “Once it gets mud on it, there is no way to clean it up, so don't let it stay on the ground if a rain is coming up.”

  • With burley you have to be very careful about diseases, especially blue mold. You have to have a high-clearance sprayer so you can spray up under the leaves and get thorough coverage with your fungicides, says Nelson.

    Varieties with good disease packages are available. “I grew several varieties,” says Nelson. “TN-90 seemed to do very well for us, but most of the others had some good characteristics too.”

  • But no burley varieties are resistant to Granville wilt, so don't plant burley in fields with a history of the disease if you can help it.