Perspectives Online

Chopping tobacco before curing it - an idea whose time has come?

A tobacco chopper, designed a decade ago by an N.C. State graduate student and refurbished by Dr. Mike Boyette, is put to use at R.J. Hinnant and Sons Farms near Kenly. Boyette hopes to determine whether there are any problems processing chopped tobacco.
Photos By Dave Caldwell
Timing is often everything. Take chopping tobacco. This year, as has been the case for as long as anyone can remember, North Carolina tobacco growers are harvesting and curing whole tobacco leaves. That's the way it's always been done.

But times are changing, and chopping tobacco before curing it may just be an idea whose time has come. At least that's how Dr. Mike Boyette, Philip Morris Professor of biological and agricultural engineering, sees it.

He thinks that chopping tobacco could help make the state's tobacco growers more competitive in a post-tobacco-buyout world. He's already shown that tobacco chopped into hand-size pieces can be cured more efficiently than whole leaves. With this year's harvest, he's arranged to chop up and cure around 20,000 pounds of tobacco. That should be enough to determine whether there are any problems processing chopped tobacco.

The traditional method of curing whole tobacco leaves notwithstanding, chopping tobacco is not a new idea.

Boyette says the product that results after chopped tobacco is cured tends to be filler tobacco that could be competitive on the world market. (Dave Caldwell)
Boyette says the product that results after chopped tobacco is cured tends to be filler tobacco that could be competitive on the world market.
(Dave Caldwell)
Boyette experimented in the mid 1990s with chopping tobacco, and he was hardly the first. As far back as the 1970s, Dr. Bill Collins, now coordinator of tobacco programs for the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, experimented with chopped tobacco, while Dr. Bill Johnson, professor emeritus of biological and agricultural engineering and former assistant director of the Agricultural Research Service, has for a number of years experimented at the laboratory scale with curing chopped tobacco.

Boyette's mid '90s experiments with chopped tobacco showed that as much as 50 percent more chopped as leaf tobacco could be cured in the same barn space. The quality of the chopped tobacco wasn't quite up to that of the whole leaf tobacco, but it was acceptable.

But the time for chopped tobacco had not yet come. Tobacco growers were more interested in baling their tobacco, a new concept at the time, and growers were struggling to retrofit their curing barns to reduce the formation of carcinogens called nitrosamines in tobacco.

Now, Boyette has dusted off the tobacco chopper a graduate student designed almost a decade ago, refurbished it and is using it to chop tobacco at R. J. Hinnant and Sons Farms near Kenly.

Boyette is quick to point out that chopping tobacco is unlikely to be a viable alternative for N.C. growers as long as the tobacco program and quota system are in place.

The tobacco program supports relatively high prices for high-quality tobacco. As long as the program ensures such prices, there's no incentive for American growers to produce a lesser quality tobacco for a lower price.

"Chopping has no future as long as we have a tobacco program," Boyette says. "There's no market for this (chopped) tobacco."

But the tobacco program may be on the verge of extinction. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have passed tobacco quota buyout bills. If they can agree on a compromise buyout plan, the tobacco program and its price supports will disappear.

Still, Boyette envisions a vital American tobacco-growing industry in the wake of a quota buyout. But in order for the industry to thrive, Boyette argues that growers will have to become more globally competitive.

As the quality of foreign tobacco has improved, Boyette points out, the United States has increasingly seen its share of the worldwide tobacco market shrink. No matter the commodity, Boyette says, "The amount demanded at the high end is low; you lose market share. The only way to get back in business is to go down scale and maintain market share."

He argues that if American tobacco growers are to be competitive, they must grab back some of that lost market share. He thinks they can do that by producing lower-quality tobacco.

That's where chopping tobacco comes into play. It's a way for American growers to work more efficiently.

Boyette says American farmers cannot compete with the lower labor costs of foreign growers; however, American growers have an advantage when it comes to technology. He thinks American growers can use technology and machinery to produce tobacco of slightly lower quality that will sell for a lower price but that will command a larger share of the world tobacco market.

Boyette is confident that chopping tobacco is a viable way to cure tobacco more efficiently. Indeed, tobacco cures when hot air flows around the leaves. Air flows more efficiently around chopped up pieces of leaves than around whole leaves.

The chemistry of the cured tobacco is slightly altered, although chopping tobacco does not affect nicotine content. Nor does chopping affect the color. But quality does suffer slightly. Boyette explains that tobacco quality is dependent on the conversion of starches to sugars during curing. When tobacco is sliced into pieces, some cells are damaged, and the starches in these damaged cells are not converted to sugars.

Boyette says the product that results after chopped tobacco has been cured might best be described as filler tobacco. But it tends to be high-quality filler tobacco, and Boyette thinks it could be competitive on the world market.

Once American growers have market share, other avenues may be pursued. Agronomists may begin working on new types of tobacco or ways to grow tobacco that fit better with chopping. Boyette says it may be possible to do something called ratooning, which is harvesting leaves, then cutting back the stalk of the plant so that the plant produces a second set of leaves in the same season, essentially double cropping.

"We have an advantage" in technology, says Boyette, "if we're willing to take advantage."

Then there's the little matter of the tobacco program and a billion dollar buyout of quotas. If that happens, then chopped tobacco may finally be an idea whose time has come.

-Dave Caldwell