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.