WENDELL — Randy Edwards has to harvest 1 million pounds of tobacco by 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 tobacco 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 may seem like a steep price, but the barns are said to shorten curing time by about a day. And because they’re made of steel and include high-tech insulation, they’re considered more efficient than the older plywood and sheet metal barns still used on many tobacco farms.
How much more efficient are they? N.C. State University researchers are studying Edwards’ barns to find out. They hosted a group of more than 70 tobacco farmers and industry executives at Edwards’ farm on Wednesday to talk about the research.
“Nobody’s got any real data on (the energy cost) savings yet,” said Edwards, 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, will lead the study that evaluates the amount of tobacco produced 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 through the N.C. Agricultural Extension 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 Raleigh.
“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 per year. As much as tobacco farmers will want to avoid paying $30,000-40,000 for a new barn, they may soon have no choice.
Most of the used tobacco barns “have aged past the point of return,” Ellington said.