Tobacco challenge of 2006: Making burley bloom beside flue-cured

The pressing question on many American tobacco farms this year is, “How do you grow burley on a flue-cured farm?”

Since the federal price support came to an end before the 2005 season, a growing number of flue-cured growers are adding burley to their operations.

One man who might be able to help with advice is Kevin Trent of Brookneal, Va. He has had a lifetime of experience growing flue-cured and burley together. Trent's farm in the Piedmont of southern Virginia is one of a handful in that state and in North Carolina that had both flue-cured and burley quotas under the old program. Trent has grown the two types together all his farming life, as well as dark fire cured.

The agronomic aspect of growing burley isn't likely to be much of a problem for a flue-cured farmer, Trent says. Instead, the biggest challenge to overcome is finding a place to hang it.

He was reminded of how difficult this is when he increased his burley plantings this year.

“I scanned the countryside looking for barns and sheds,” he says. “We found some old flue-cured barns and dark fire-cured barns that weren't being used. Also, we found some hay sheds and similar buildings that could be adapted.”

He felt he had to use existing structures: The current tobacco economy doesn't justify the expense of building permanent burley-curing structures right now, Trent says.

But he did build a small outdoor structure last year.

“It worked well last year,” he says. “It holds about six tenths of an acre. We hang the burley on sticks from high tensile wire and cover it with plastic.”

But this kind of curing structure has some risks that make him hesitant to depend on them exclusively.

“If you get a bad thunderstorm or a hurricane, you have to keep a close eye on the plastic,” he says. “It might blow off. I don't think I would want to put the whole crop in structures of this type. But if you have the right kind of site, you can take the chance on part of it.

“Outdoor structures get you a cheap start in burley curing. They save labor. And everyone gets to stay on the ground (rather than climbing up into traditional tier barns, which involves some risk). We liked ours and will probably build another one this season.”

And he may have to build more in the future. “If we want to expand our burley next year, we will have to have more curing structures of some sort. We are maxed out now.”

In the past, Trent has usually grown about two acres of burley and 25 to 30 acres of flue-cured. But in 2006, the price situation led him to plant 14 acres of burley while cutting back to only six acres of flue-cured.

“With the contract prices available this year, burley is a little more attractive than flue,” says Trent. “We certainly could have expanded our flue-cured acreage, but the profit on flue-cured is so small we decided to grow more burley and less flue-cured.”

The rising cost of energy has really worked against flue-cured, since it requires so much fuel for curing, while burley requires essentially none.

But that doesn't mean that burley curing doesn't take some management.

As a rule of thumb, ventilators and doors should usually be opened during the day and closed in the late afternoon or early evening.

“But if the humidity is extremely high you may want to open the doors,” says Trent. “Or you may want to open them at night. It may take a little while to learn how to cure burley, but it is not that difficult.”

At some times, you may need to bring in circulation fans and supplemental heat.

“If you get into a wet spell and your tobacco tries to houseburn on you, you may need to get some fans in there to dry it out,” he says.

“You don't want it to ‘flash’ cure either. That's when it cures too quick, with a high yellow color.”

In that situation, where your burley is curing too fast due to dry weather, you should close the barn during the day and open it at night.

There are agronomic differences between the two types. They definitely grow best in different types of soil.

“We put our burley on our heavier soils where we can,” says Trent. “It will grow on sandier soils, but in my experience it doesn't yield as well on them. Burley takes a heavier soil to make the weight.”

You also need a higher pH for burley than for flue, he says.

“If you get your pH levels up to do the best you can do with burley, it may be too high for flue. You may be asking for some problems like black shank. I guess there is a happy medium in there somewhere, but your pH levels for burley need to be a little higher than for flue, in my experience.”

The high level of nitrogen fertilization that burley requires is quite a bit more than a flue-cured grower would be used to, about double.

“I usually use about 150 to 160 pounds of nitrogen per acre on burley, sometimes 180,” says Trent. “For flue-cured, 70 or 80 pounds of nitrogen is usually enough.”

He applies the analysis 8-16-24 at planting time on both his burley and flue-cured.

“On the flue-cured, we try to put enough down that we don't need to put out any more unless there is leaching,” he says. “But on the burley we may come back with 34 percent and maybe some 13-0-14 at layby if we need it.”

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