The art of curing tobacco

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Many citizens of Sampson County may remember the days of hanging and curing tobacco in wood-fired “stick barns” that were relied on for many decades by tobacco growers. While these historic barns can still be found, they were retired with the advent of the bulk barn. The new barns provided an unmatched efficiency factor with the peace of mind of LP fuel. New technology has been added through the years, however, the bulk barn is still used today with no art being lost in the tedious curing process.

Tobacco is unique to other field crops because it is not ready for market as soon as it is harvested from the field. The leaves that are stripped from the stalk in the field must be “cured” in a manner that removes high volumes of moisture while preserving the characteristics that make the crop profitable.

The curing process involves heat, high volume air exchange, and humidity adjusted every 3 hours for up to 120 hours total depending on the stalk position of the tobacco as well as the state the leaf is in at harvest. Uniform loading is key to getting a proper cure because it allows the heated air to pass through the barn evenly. For a very basic curing schedule example on what is considered “normal” tobacco, a stair-step temperature increase method often begins at 90 degrees Fahrenheit and increases 3 to 5 degrees at each step. Normal tobacco will continue this process up to 165 degrees.

Since this process removes water from the leaf, growers must manage the humidity in the barn as well. Removing water too quickly or too slowly from the barn will cause undesirable effects such as improper coloring and undesirable flavor. While this is a very broad example, it should give insight to just how tedious the process is and the unseen art of the curing process that growers continue to use in their operation.

Flue-cured tobacco remains an integral role on many farms throughout Sampson County. Mid to late July marks the beginning of our harvest season. As the harvest season ramps up, growers have to make many decisions and adjustments during both harvest and the curing process to ensure marketable leaf is the end result. The knowledge to properly cure a barn of tobacco comes solely from experience that has been passed down through generations. When you see a tobacco harvester or trucks loaded with green tobacco in the coming weeks, remember the craft and knowledge that goes into turning that green leaf into a marketable product.

Hunter Rhodes is an Agricultural Extension Agent specializing in row crops. Contact Hunter by calling the Sampson County Extension Center at (910) 592-7161 or by emailing [email protected]