JOHNSTON COUNTY — Randy Edwards has to harvest 1 million pounds of tobacco before fall’s first frost, and this year’s rain has him worried he’ll fall short.
But Edwards has an advantage many North Carolina tobacco farmers don’t: three new state-of-the-art curing barns. Instead of searching for deals on used barns as many growers do, Edwards recently invested more than $100,000 to increase his barn count 5 percent.
It might seem a steep price, but the barns are supposed to shorten curing time by about a day. And because they’re made of steel and include high-tech insulation, they’re supposed to be more efficient – and therefore cheaper to run – than the older plywood and sheet-metal barns still used on many tobacco farms.
How much more efficient? N.C. State University researchers are studying Edwards’ barns to find out. Earlier this month, the researched played host to more than 70 tobacco farmers and industry executives at Edwards’ farm north of Archer Lodge.
“Nobody’s got any real data on savings yet,” Edwards said, standing in front of his new Long, Tytun and World Tobacco brand barns. “Hopefully, they’ll save us some money.”
Grant Ellington, a biological- and agricultural-engineering professor at N.C. State, is leading the study, which will measure the amount of tobacco cured and the amount of LP gas needed to fuel the barns for the remainder of the growing season, which typically ends in October. The researchers will analyze the data and publish it later this year.
J. Michael Moore, a tobacco specialist with the University of Georgia, roamed the gravel alleys between Edwards’ new barns. Moore said tobacco companies are encouraging farmers to meet a tobacco shortage caused by weather in recent years. Under that pressure, Moore and Ellington said, growers across the country will direct their eyes to the research being done on Edwards’ farm.
“Then, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the new (barns) on the market,” Moore said.
Ellington said he expects the newer barns might save farmers 30 percent in fuel costs a year. And as much as tobacco farmers will want to avoid paying $30,000 to $40,000 for a new barn, they might soon have no choice.
Most current tobacco barns “have aged past the point of return,” Ellington said.