Wood-fired curing in Georgia
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by Diane Shearer
Benjamin Franklin, the creative thinker and thrifty-minded inventor, would have admired Jerry Wooten.
Wooten farms 96 acres of tobacco near the small town of Denton in south Georgia. Tim Varnedore, extension agent for Jeff Davis County, describes Wooten as a man always thinking, and says Wooten and his sons Kelvin and Jerry Ashley can build anything.
Realizing the cost of fuel for curing tobacco would only continue to rise, Wooten sought a solution. Five years later, he’s probably the only grower in Georgia - and one of the few in the entire flue-cured region - who burns wood.
He once had a cousin who had a version of a wood-fired cooker, so he already knew something about the design. Then he read an article in a magazine, and decided that he and his sons could build one and substantially cut the cost of operating his ten Taylor box barns.
He was right. Today it costs Wooten $150 per barn to cure with wood, versus $600 for propane. He says the cooker has never given him any problems.
This would not, however, be a project to be undertaken by the fainthearted or those without a variety of skills. Wooten and his sons spent about six months building the cooker, finishing just before he started cropping in 2002, “It took one solid week to just to cut pipes and plumb it,” he said.
Twenty-one pipes had to be run through the iron at the back of the tank, not to mention all the other water pipes that had to be laid. Sitting on top of the cooker is an 1,100-gallon expansion tank, and behind the cooker sits an EPA-required smokestack, which is really another 3,000-gallon vertical tank. Outside each barn is a hot water pump that circulates water back to be re-heated.
The Wootens did all the work themselves, except for the 2,800-pound door and its hydraulics, and the elbow for the smokestack. A machine shop in Douglas, Georgia built the door, which holds 500 gallons of water. For the outer tank of the cooker, Wooten secured a turpentine still and welded a piece of metal to it to form a flat base. He then inserted a second 3,000-gallon steel inner tank. The finished cooker is approximately 31 feet long by ten feet wide.
Wooten burns scrap lumber he buys from a business in nearby Willacoochee, Georgia. Pallets of wood cost five dollars, and he loads a dozen on his trailer each time he makes the 60-mile round-trip. When curing, Wooten averages burning two to six pallets of wood a day to insure the temperature of the water is kept between 165-170 degrees.
Modest about his accomplishments, Wooten says simply, “I come up hard, but the good Lord’s always blessed me.”
Wooten doesn’t see himself as innovative. He says he’s just a man willing to take chances - provided he’s already figured out how to pay for the risks he is about to undertake. This one certainly has paid off.