The fixed costs of your curing facilities account for a big chunk of the expense of growing a pound of tobacco.

A good way to reduce barn cost is to increase the amount of leaf cured in each barn per season.

That means you must have leaf ready to cure for as long a curing season as possible. The Sharp family of Sims, N.C., has developed a strategy to achieve a long curing season over the past three years on their flue-cured tobacco farm. They do it by creating as long a harvest period as the weather in any given year will allow.

“We need to have tobacco to cure every day we can, right up to the first killing frost,” says Pender Sharp, who farms with his father Thad, brother Alan and son Thad IV near Wilson. “We want to use every frost-free day God gives us to grow the crop.”

What they are doing is not double-cropping. They are still getting only one crop per year per field. But by managing their tobacco to continue ripening past the point farmers normally end harvesting, they are able to use their curing barns more times in a season.

That isn’t possible unless they get a quick start on setting out and a late finish on ripening. They start transplanting just as soon as the last killing frost is behind them and then stretch the transplanting period so that some tobacco gets set out very late. Then they keep the latest-developing tobacco growing so that they can harvest it until the first frost in the fall.

“We begin setting the day after the last killing frost and transplant over six weeks,” he says. “In 2009, we began transplanting on April 13, and continued until May 25. We fertilize our early fields with average nitrogen rates so we can harvest them early.”

If all goes well, the crop will keep growing right until the first fall frost.

“We want to be able to harvest good tobacco that is not over-ripe for the full month of October,” says Sharp. “In traditional programs, the crop has finished growing by July or August. To do what we are trying to do, you have to be concerned with the health of the remaining plants well into October.”

That means fungicides, a foliar fertilizer and perhaps insecticides starting in late August to ensure the health and longevity of those later fields. “By starting early with our sprays, we try to keep leaves free of brown spot and angular leaf spot, which can cause tips to deteriorate.”

The Sharps have learned some lessons along the way. One is that some varieties work better for early harvest, others for late.

Although it is not sold for earliness, CC 27 has done well as the early variety, says Sharp. “For our late plantings, we choose varieties that have good holding capacity. We have used K 326, but next year we will plant NC 196, because of its disease resistance and because it stays in the field a little longer.”

They are still looking for the best lineup of varieties.

“For our early crop, we could really use a 110-day variety with yield potential of 3,000 pounds per acre,” he adds.

They try to put late plantings on new land or on land that has been in relatively long rotations, says Sharp. Heavier-natured soils work better than sandier ones. “We fertilize the late-harvested heavier than normal,” he says.

The new strategy represents a drastic change from past practice, but there has been no downside so far, says Sharp. “A light frost will scare you to death, but it won’t hurt much.”

Their 2008 crop got a frost Oct. 20, but it did very little damage to the tobacco. “Our harvest continued until Oct. 28 that year,” he says. “This year was similar with a light mid- October frost that did little damage. We finished harvest Oct. 27.”

In 2009, they again finished harvesting on Oct. 28. As it turned out, the first killing frost didn’t come until the end of November.

The frost-to-frost strategy has resulted in savings in equipment that have been significant, Sharp says. “We use each barn for 11 cures, sometimes a twelfth.”

The strategy has increased the use of barns by 30 percent, says Sharp. “We are running over 500 acres through equipment that would be considered adequate for only 400. To handle this crop the old way, we would need 12 or 15 more barns plus increased harvesting capacity. That would mean an investment of an additional $1/2 million.”

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com