Since tobacco was deregulated in 2004, burley has moved into the Piedmont of North Carolina, an area where only flue-cured tobacco has traditionally been produced.
Tony Boles of Lawsonville, N.C., who farms with his brother Danny about 40 miles north of Winston-Salem, has been a part of this evolution. Prior to the tobacco buyout, the only tobacco type they had grown was flue-cured. But when they sought contracts for flue-cured for 2005 — the first year tobacco was grown on the free market — they weren’t offered as many pounds as they’d hoped for.
But another option was available.
“Our company said, ‘We don’t need any more flue-cured, but if you would like to plant burley, we can give you a burley contract.’ When we looked into it, it seemed like a good fit for us,” Boles said.
Boles and his brother now grow up to 20 acres of burley a year to go along with 200 acres of flue-cured.
Right from the beginning, burley fit well into the Boles’ flue-cured operation.
Seedlings for both types can be produced in the same greenhouse and set with the same equipment. This season, all 20 acres of burley were planted on April 24, and transplanting of flue-cured began the next day.
They aim to have the burley ready to harvest at the same time the bottom leaves on the flue-cured are ready to be pulled, so these two tasks can be done simultaneously.
Burley is harvested by severing the stalk close to the ground with a hatchet-like knife. Flue-cured is harvested a few leaves at a time, starting with those closest to the ground.
Once the proper maturity is achieved, they begin cutting down the burley at the same time they start pulling bottom flue-cured leaves by hand.
“It is hard to pull bottom primings from flue-cured in the heat of the afternoon,” he said. “So we pull first primings in the morning and switch over in the afternoon to cutting burley, which isn’t as hard to do in hot weather.”
Workers carry the flue-cured leaf to a trailer which takes it to the curing barns. The burley stalks are left on the ground to “wilt” two to four days before being taken to the barn.
“This is a very helpful practice,” said Boles. “After wilting, the tobacco is much lighter and much easier to handle. It loses maybe 20 percent of the original weight.”
Can wilt too long
But it’s possible to wilt too long. A “flash” cure — in which the leaf dries before it has a chance to cure — can occur if you wilt longer than six days, said Boles. And if climate conditions aren’t favorable, it can happen sooner.
“For instance, if temperatures are above 90 degrees and you cut burley and leave it down, it might flash cure in three days,” he said. In that situation, he might cut his burley and take it straight to the barn.
Paul Denton, Tennessee Extension tobacco specialist, advises that a three-day wilt is ideal. “You should wilt burley no more than five days, and three or four days is really long enough,” he said. “If you wilt longer than five days after cutting, you give it the opportunity to dry out. That can set the conditions for flash cure."
Once your tobacco is hung, he adds, be ready to close the barn and control humidity if you have the capacity to do so.
Boles departs from tradition when it comes to hanging burley in the curing barn. Instead of spearing the stalks, he puts a notch near the base of each one and hangs it on a wire strung in his curing structure.
He notches using a mechanical notcher he made himself using a regular table saw with double blades. He rakes the stalk over it.
To date, their curing structure has been an old tobacco greenhouse they adapted for this purpose. But when they needed a little more curing space for the 2010 crop, they went in a different direction.
“We purchased some curing frames from a farmer who has retired,” Boles said. “They are made of wood and strung with wire. We put a top over them, and when they are filled, we wrap plastic around them.”
His goal is to cut and hang his burley by the third week of August. “Then I have from the end of August to the first week of October to do the flue-cured work.”
After hand-harvesting the bottom flue-cured leaves, he harvests the rest with a multi-pass mechanical harvester and puts it in box barns.
The burley, meanwhile, hangs in the curing structures until November. From that point on, it is handled by the four children in the two Boles families.
The kids strip it into three or four grades once it is cured, then bale it for delivery to the buyer. Once it is sold, they get to keep the proceeds.
“We call it our family money,” Boles said. “That is one of the benefits of burley for us. The main thing, though, is that burley allows us to get a little extra use of the tobacco equipment we have and of our labor.”