In a volatile tobacco market, producers are looking for ways to cut operating costs. A University of Kentucky agricultural engineer is working on a new concept for curing tobacco that may save producers money.

Since the 2009 growing season, John Wilhoit, UK College of Agriculture associate Extension professor, has worked with two central Kentucky producers to test the curing capabilities of outdoor structures called pallet racks for burley tobacco.

While growers have used outdoor curing structures for the last two decades, the pallet racks differ from those structures. Pallet racks are made of industrial steel. Producers can purchase pallet racks, which are often used in home improvement stores for shelving, second hand from dealers or possibly from stores going out of business. The racks snap into place and can accommodate three or five rows of tobacco on sticks. A three-row rack that's five sections long will hold around one-third acre of tobacco, and a five-row rack of the same length holds around a half acre.

"The curing is about the same as what you'd get from a barn," he said.

Spacers used to connect adjacent racks are sized so that sticks of tobacco hang on the steel rails, the same way they hang on wooden rails in tobacco barns. Wilhoit developed an inexpensive way to make the spacers and diagonal braces that make the structure more stable. He also designed wooden frames that fit into the top of the structure to raise the center of the rack's plastic covering, so rainwater will run off during the curing process.

The structures have several advantages to other curing methods. Producers can erect them quickly, making it easy to expand curing capacity on short notice. They are easier to disassemble and take up less storage space than most other types of curing structures. This allows growers to disassemble them in the off-season and use the field for other purposes. It also keeps the racks out of the weather. Since a person of average height can easily reach the top rail of the structure, hanging the crop on pallet racks is safer and requires less labor than hanging the crop in a barn, which could help producers reduce labor costs.