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A new-fangled way to cut tobacco

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By Walt Reichert

Ray Tucker was cutting tobacco on his farm Tuesday morning. But rather than stooping, swinging, lifting and spearing, he was driving a machine that was doing the backbreaking work for him.

Tucker is experimenting with a mechanical tobacco harvester manufactured by the Kirpy Company of France that cuts the plant, notches it and lays it on a wagon gentle as a baby. Rather than a field full of workers swinging tomahawks and spearing plants on sticks, cutting with the Kirpy requires one to drive the tractor and another worker to pull a wagon alongside.

"Eight people can cut and hang three acres in a 10-hour day," Tucker said. "We averaged three acres a day before but we used 14 to 15 people."

Tucker doesn't own the $30,000 Kirpy, but instead is using the machine through Philip Morris USA's mechanization program. The company, and some tobacco farmers across the state, are looking at ways to mechanize the planting and harvesting of the labor-intensive tobacco crop. The goal is not just to save money on labor costs but to ensure that the crop will get harvested at all.

"Finding labor is the name of the game," said Dean Wallace, executive director of the Council for Burley Tobacco. "It's the number one factor limiting tobacco production in the state."

Labor costs account for approximately 50 percent of the cost of bringing in the tobacco crop, said Dr. Will Snell, University of Kentucky Extension Tobacco Economist.

Tucker said last year he spent $400 to $500 per acre to cut the crop by hand - and that's when he can find the labor. Hiring immigrants through the federal H2A program is increasingly expensive and cumbersome, he said. And changes may come down for the program in the future, changes that may not be beneficial to farmers.

The Kirpy can bring in the crop at $250 to $300 per acre. The Kirpy also keeps the crop cleaner.

"The tobacco never touches the ground," Tucker said.

After cutting, the tobacco is hung not in barns but on wire in temporary structures covered with tin. The tobacco will cure in the structures rather than in barns as is the traditional method. One downside is that the structures require more monitoring for heat and humidity build-up than barns do, Tucker said.

When Tucker is finished, Shane Courtney, also of Shelbyville, plans to use it. Courtney has 15 acres of tobacco, a crop he is trying for the first time this year.

Courtney said he cut 12 acres of tobacco by hand this year, but will use the Kirpy on 15 more. He was attracted to the machine because he lacks the barn space to hang tobacco in the traditional way.

"I saw it as a good opportunity because as a young farmer starting out, I didn't have the land and was squeezed for barn space," Courtney said. "I felt the most economical way for me to go was to build the temporary structures."

Payoff?

The jury is still out on whether or not the cutting machine will be cost-effective. Beyond the initial purchase price, farmers will be out money to build the temporary structures to house the crop. Tucker said he was going to need to build new barns anyway this year because he lost six in the tornadoes that hit the county in February.

"I think for young farmers who are going to be around for awhile, they might pay off," Tucker said.

But Snell said farmers across the state so far are still shying away.

"There are several mechanical harvesters, but none have been widely adopted," Snell said. "Some harvesters have labor-saving potential but the biggest challenge is the investment costs relative to the labor efficiencies which have not resulted in enough interest to significantly replace traditional harvesting methods. We (UK) need to do more field work to give more definitive answers."

Snell said the harvesters can save on the labor involved in cutting the crop, but do not help with the most labor intensive aspect of getting tobacco to market - stripping. Stripping machines have been used in some places and by some farmers in the county, but they, too, are not in widespread use.

Tucker said one thing that will have to change if farmers are to adopt more costly mechanized equipment is the price of tobacco. While the price jumped about a dime a pound in 2007 vs. 2006 that did not even cover the increase in the cost of fuel and fertilizer, Tucker said.

But while the machine is still in the experimental phase, one thing is certain - it makes for a more pleasant tobacco cutting experience.

"The guy driving the tractor and the cutter have the hardest work," Tucker said. "The guys putting up the tobacco get to stay in the shade."

Tobacco still a cash cow

Tobacco may no longer be the king of Kentucky agriculture, but it's still in the royal family.

Last year, the state's farmers produced 190,560 pounds of tobacco on 89,000 in a challenging growing season marked by severe drought. The crop was worth just under $332 million.

In 2007, Shelby County ranked third in tobacco production in the state, according to the USDA Agricultural Statistics Service. Shelby County farmers harvested 2,250 acres of tobacco worth about $7 million. Shelby ranked behind Barren and Breckinridge in state tobacco production.

"Tobacco growing is moving into the western part of the state," said Dean Wallace, executive director of the Council for Burley Tobacco. And more and more farmers are trying the dark tobacco."

Though burley is still king here, Shelby County tobacco farmer Ray Tucker has a small patch of air-cured dark tobacco. The tobacco is used to make smokeless tobacco products while burley is used primarily in cigarettes.

Tucker said he is trying to take advantage of a growing trend.

"Snuff and dips are increasing while smoking is going down," Tucker said.