After the tobacco buyout of 2004, when growers could plant any tobacco type they wanted, flue-cured growers Hester Vernon and his son William decided to grow some burley on their farm in Milton, N.C., near Danville, Va.
But they had a big decision to make: What kind of structure would be best for curing the air-cured type under the Vernons' conditions?
The economic climate of the time meant that a big upfront cost was not a good idea. So a traditional multi-tiered pole barn of the type popular in Tennessee and Kentucky was clearly uneconomical.
“Some other farmers in the area were building outdoor structures at the edges of their fields,” said Hester Vernon. “But they are expensive too, and we wanted to find something that would cost less.”
In 2005, they tried using abandoned wooden flue-cured barns, but because of air flow, they produced unsatisfactory results. But then the solution popped up literally in front of their eyes.
“We had quite a few greenhouses on our farm, and they were going unused at the time that we cure burley,” he said. “We decided to see if we could hang our burley in greenhouses.”
But how would they suspend the stalks? An experiment with some materials they had on hand from their cattle operation provided the answer.
“We had bought some cattle panels we had left over from something else and decided to lay them flat on the trusses of the greenhouses,” he said.
Since they installed the panels in the greenhouses, they have left them in place all the time, he said. “They don't interfere with anything we do in there. They are high enough that we can do what we need to do without hitting them.”
Because the panels are very light when they are not loaded, the Vernons leave them in and are able to place them on the trusses in the greenhouse.
But when the panels are loaded with stalks, they are too heavy for the greenhouse structure, so the Vernons support the trusses with landscaping timbers.
“Now all our work is done standing on the ground,” said Hester. That is a big safety benefit compared to multi-tier barns where falling accidents are not uncommon.
“And the heaviest thing we ever lift is one stalk,” he said. “Our workers are Hispanic, and they like it better this way.”
The wire of the livestock panels forms squares. They could have hung the stalks from notches cut at the base. But there was a problem. “The wire is rather large diameter, and it is hard to make notches in the stalks that are big enough to allow the stalks to hang easily,” said Vernon.
Found the solution
Again, the Vernons came up with a solution that made use of materials that were already on the farm.
“We take a hammer and drive nails into the stalks, then hang the nails over the wires,” he said. “We will have four or five men nailing while three men are hanging.”
The Vernons' greenhouses are 30 feet wide and 96 feet long. Each can hold 10 panels and produce enough plants for two to 2.5 acres in the field. They are still using the houses to grow plants in, but they have had to make some modifications for curing. The main one has to do with reducing direct light on curing leaf.
“During the curing season, we put black plastic over the clear plastic that covers the greenhouses,” he said. “But that comes back off when the curing is done.”
They also cure a little of their burley in an old unused dairy lounging barn. “We strung the lounge with high tensile electric fence wire,” he said. “The posts in that structure are sturdy enough to hold it. We have just one tier, just as in the greenhouses.”
But instead of using nails, the workers cut a notch in the stalk using the hatchet they harvested it with.
“Once you learn how, it is not that hard to hand notch,” said Vernon. “The biggest thing is turning your hand in the notching motion to angle the notch right. Our Mexican workers catch on fast.”
Once it is cured, the leaf is stripped in the greenhouse or dairy barn, then is moved elsewhere for baling.
The Vernons have wound up with some unusual looking curing space, but they believe they have obtained it for a reasonable cost.
“We were looking for a low-cost facility to cure burley, and it seemed there was nothing else as low cost as what we already had on the farm,” Vernon said.
In 2012, they raised 15 acres of burley along with 65 acres of flue-cured. To the extent possible, they manage the burley so that it can be ready for harvest in slow periods in the flue-cured harvest.
If more barn space is needed,burley farmers will most likely first seek unused, existing barns rather than build new ones, said Daniel Green, chief operating officer of the Burley Stabilization Corporation in Springfield, Tenn.
"It takes a lot to build a conventional barn, and although the outlook for burley is good, there is a lot of uncertainty in the short-term," he said.
There are many unused barns remaining from the years when growers produced much more than they will in 2013. Unfortunately, they are frequently not in the areas where growers are expanding.
If a demand arises for new curing facilities this year, Paul Denton, Kentucky-Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist, doesn't think it will be met with traditional tall barns.
"I think that outdoor curing structures or low-profile barns would be better choices,” he said. “You would want the lowest possible initial cost."
Denton commented that driving a nail in each stalk before hanging seems like a high labor approach to hanging stalks. “But it would be easy work,” he said. “It might not be so bad if you could come up with a nail gun to do the same thing quicker.”
Denton called it an interesting alternative. “It has low capital cost and is easy and safe for workers.”