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Pallet racks offer low-cost tobacco curing

The challenge for a tobacco farmer who needs more curing capacity is to find a way to use the curing space he has more efficiently.

For the stalk-cut types, warehouse pallet racks are proving to be a low cost method to turn existing covered space into functional curing barns.

Lynwood Vick of Wilson N.C., has found that used pallet racks acquired from commercial retail businesses are an excellent method of creating curing space for the burley he grows.

The big advantage offered by the pallet racks is the extreme ease of assembly. “We can put the pallet racks up and then take them back down whenever we are finished curing,” says Vick. “It only takes one day to put enough racks up to cure five acres.”

This past year he used pallet racks to turn a shelter he uses for sweet potato storage and also to store equipment into an efficient curing structure.

The pallet racks originally held merchandise at a Lowes Home Improvement store. He assembles them into three tiers, with seven-foot spacing.

He cuts and spears the tobacco on sticks.

“Once we have harvested the tobacco and it is wilted, we put the tobacco on a flatbed truck and carry it to the storage building,” he says. “There we hang the sticks in the racks with one man on the ground and one in the tiers.”

The racks are sturdy enough that a man can stand in them.

It is easy to find used racks, and they are available at a reasonable price, says Vick. “There are a number of manufacturers that sell used racks,” he says. “And if we decide later we don’t need them any more, we can sell them for close to what we have in them.”

The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative of Lexington Ky., and the University of Kentucky are cooperating in a pilot program to investigate the use of used warehouse pallet racks for hanging and curing burley.

The racking systems have been used both to build permanent structures and to set up temporary structures, says John Wilhoit, University of Kentucky agricultural engineer. “These include single-tiered structures for use in the field, double-tiered structures to fill barn driveways and three-high-tiers for open interior buildings like warehouses (like Vick’s).”

The advantage of these warehouse racking systems is that they can be easily set up for temporary, low-cost additional curing capacity, says Wilhoit. “Then they can easily be dismantled after the tobacco is taken down, requiring minimal storage space during the off season.”

The single-tier racks used for field structures are of particular interest for hanging notched tobacco, he adds. As a practical matter, a single tier approach is the only way to convert barns into a notched stalk system. “The racks can be fitted with woven wire sections for hanging the notched tobacco,” says Wilhoit.

Vick’s area of eastern North Carolina is famous for its flue-cured tobacco, but burley has been grown only since deregulation in 2006. Now, the type seems to have found a place on Vick’s operation, which is major in flue-cured.

“We can grow burley as well as anywhere,” says Vick.

But it is not totally competitive with flue-cured. “It has been difficult to produce consistent yields of burley,” he says. “We have produced yields as high as 2,800 pounds and as low as 1,600 pounds.”

Vick thinks this can probably be attributed to the fact that compared to flue-cured, burley is not as forgiving of low rainfall. “That is why flue has been higher in yield,” he says.

In 2009, the burley yield was about 2,700 pounds, a little lower than the Vick’s yield on flue-cured.

Target spot and TSWV are both problems on burley. “This is the second year we have used Quadris for target spot. It has worked pretty well.”

Burley is a lot more susceptible to spotted wilt than flue, he has found. “We get tomato spotted wilt on burley every year. There is some stand loss. But so far the yield loss has not been significant.”

The main advantage of planting burley for Vick is in improved labor utilization. Vick has learned to schedule burley cutting so that it falls in the gap between his first flue-cured pulling and his second, giving his crew something to do during a slow period.

But burley still manages to carry its own weight, he says. “We are not losing money on it.”

The Vicks have been planting burley on a small scale. “The most we have had has been 12 acres. In 2009, we grew just six.”

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