But Bobby Baker of Ellisboro, N.C., in the North Carolina Piedmont near Greensboro, who has experimented with all the harvesting methods available in five seasons of burley production, says the old-fashioned way is the best.
Substantially less labor is required, but few are in use. Why? There is a performance issue. Burley growers have frequently reported some problems with leaf breakage with mechanical harvesters. Baker experimented with a notcher-cutter in 2007 and wasn’t satisfied.
“The year we used it, we lost a lot of the lower stalk because of the extra handling that was involved,” he says.
There are compelling economic obstacles to mechanizing burley harvest. Most burley operations remain relatively small scale compared to flue-cured operations where mechanical harvest has been adopted, saidUniversity of Tennessee agricultural economists Vickie Witcher and Jane Howell Starnes.
When you factor in the extreme uncertainty many burley growers have encountered relative to contract demand, it creates a climate where the high cost of harvest mechanization doesn’t seem justified to most burley growers, they say.
Furthermore, labor is readily available in this time of economic depression, so growers have been able to get their tobacco cut and ready for market without the upfront costs of mechanical aids.
Baker, a life-long flue-cured grower, began growing burley right after the buyout. Now, with his sixth burley crop nearing completion, he thinks he made a good choice.
“Burley really helps in labor utilization on a flue-cured farm,” says Baker.
Baker normally harvests his burley in August and strips in November or early December.