A conversion from conventional tobacco production to organic has had an unexpected benefit for Aaron Sink of High Point, N.C. It has made him more popular with landowners.

“Organic has opened doors for me in getting new land,” he says.

He farms close to an urban area, where city landowners are not always sympathetic to modern agriculture. “But my landlords like the idea of the organic option,” Sink says.

He has grown organic flue-cured for several years, this season on 35 acres.

Organic production is quite a challenge and requires much more labor than conventional tobacco. But the price premium paid by his company — Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company — is high enough to offer the potential for profit.

“Organic tobacco is a nice little niche market for a small farmer like myself,” he says. “It allows me to make a good living farming full time.”

But organic management is very demanding. “That is probably the big factor that limits the acreage we can put into it,” he says. “There are no herbicides you can use, so you have to do a lot of cultivation.”

And there were no sucker control chemicals until recently, he says. “But now we have OTAC. It has worked very well, just like any other contact chemical. We have to spray weekly and not get behind, but it has definitely cut back on the labor of controlling suckers. But you do still have to clean up by hand sometimes.”

The harvesting process hasn’t changed. “We hand harvest and put the leaf in box trailers that we pull through the field,” he says.

Rotation is important since no disease control chemicals can be used either. Sink’s rotation is one year of tobacco followed by wheat then a year of a legume. He is still experimenting to find the best legume.

Burley growers could save some of the labor of cutting down their stalks in the field and make the remaining labor easier on the back by using a Weedeater instead of the traditional long-handled knife.

The traditional method of harvesting burley is time consuming and physically demanding. It involves stooping to cut the stalk by hand near the ground using a long-handled knife.

More labor-efficient method

At the Upper Piedmont Research Station at Reidsville, N.C., researchers believe they have come up with a more labor-efficient method.

“We have found that a Weedeater with a blade is the best way to cut burley,” says Joseph French, superintendent of the station.

“The person cutting walks backward down the row with the weedeater, and as he cuts the stalks they fall away from him. We gather the stalks and carry them on a trailer to the barn. There, we notch them with a mechanical notcher attached to the trailer and hang them from wire racks.”

In conventional burley harvest, the worker drives the cut stalks onto a three-foot stick and they are into carried to a barn and hung on tier poles.

French says you can cut burley much faster with the Weedeater than with a knife, and you don’t have to bend over to do it. “Breakage might be a concern, since the stalk falls straight down,” says French. “But we haven’t had enough breakage yet for it to be a problem.”

The big obstacle might be the cost of acquiring racks, which are 4 foot x 6 foot wooden frames with metal legs about 6.5 feet high and holding 250 plants.

But French says that there is a definite savings in labor, and the labor is easier since it doesn’t involve stooping.

2011 lessons

• A tactic to limit tomato spotted wilt infections has had the side effect of latening the flue-cured crop in Georgia.

Flue-cured growers have been transplanting later in the spring because it has been proven that the risk of spotted wilt is twice as great in tobacco planted before April 7 as it is in tobacco planted after that date.

“Not too many years ago, we would be preparing for our final harvest at the beginning of August,” says J. Michael Moore, Georgia tobacco Extension agronomist.

“This year, quite a bit of the crop hadn’t even been harvested the first time by Aug. 1. Our crop is progressing now more on the Border Belt calendar.”

In Florida, growers generally haven’t made the transplanting time conversion. “They still plant the second or third week of March and stay on the traditional timeline,” says Moore.

• Two relatively new black-shank-resistant varieties contributed to very low black shank incidence on burley in Tennessee through Aug. 1, says Paul Denton, Kentucky-Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist.

Probably half of Tennessee’s burley growers planted either KT-209 or KT-206 or both, and they seem to have performed well, he says.

• The current late-season treatment threshold for flea beetles on flue-cured tobacco may not be reliable, says Hannah Burrack, North Carolina Extension entomologist. “Until the late-season threshold can be revised, base your management decision on plant damage rather than beetle density,” she says.

“If lower leaves appear ‘laced’ near the stalk, treatment is likely necessary.”