Mechanizing for Marketing
Growers are seeing that labor savings must come in the final steps
by David Williams
The best way to save a dollar is not to spend it. Very few can argue this simplest of economic facts.
The bottom line is fattened—or, at least, less reduced—when as little as possible comes off of it between the deductions and the costs. In agriculture, that means doing as much as possible to keep costs down to the absolute minimum.
For tobacco growers, costs are high for labor—especially burley growers, who have to do labor-intensive practices at the end of the season as the crop goes from field to barn and from boxes to market.
While flue-cured growers have been able to mechanize their operations to save labor costs somewhat, their bottom lines are further attacked by higher fuel costs for curing. While a burley grower does not have LP gas bills or oil bills to face in order to get his crop completed, he has a labor-intensive few weeks of cutting, hanging, stripping and baling in front of him before he receives his reward.
And the automation of burley operations is a subject that continues to draw interest from growers seeking a way to keep more of their profits.
Paul Denton, burley Extension specialist for the University of Tennessee, produced a presentation on the subject that included the single biggest reason burley harvesting and market preparation must seek a mechanized future—for an operation of approximately 6,800 plants to the acre, 57 percent of the labor requirement is in market preparation, and another 25 percent is in harvest and housing.
Mechanized harvesting has been around for a while, utilizing everything from cutting-notching pull-behinds to massive-scale mechanized harvesters that leave stands of stalks, notched and hung and ready for curing.
Bob Pearce, Extension specialist for the University of Kentucky, said despite the savings in labor and other advantages, that mechanized harvesting has not gained wide acceptance yet.
“The mechanized harvest is still relatively isolated to growers here and there,” he said. “We don’t have a widespread group of growers across a belt—a grower here and there, spread around, but not widespread in terms of the number of growers or the pounds that are being harvested mechanically right now.”
The reason? Initial cost is a part of the equation. The pull-behind cutter-notcher is less expensive than the massive total harvester that racks the plants, but its ability to do a few acres and need for extra equipment—a tractor and wagon with the cutter-notcher, for loading, for example—gives rise to whether labor is actually saved.
On the larger system, only two men are needed, and the speed of harvest is drastically improved. But it has enormous initial costs and requires several racks per acre, adding to the up-front operating costs.
In addition, mechanization will result in some leaf loss, especially with cutter-notcher systems.
The mechanization of stripping has come along in the last few years to the point that a stripping machine is available. Denton noted that in a short trial using two workers, the machine can process up to 110 sticks an hour, with one worker loading the stalks onto the machine and one removing the stripped stalks. Adding a third worker can improve efficiency up to 50 percent.
The stripper can also strip by grade, but Denton said this technology is still a work in progress. Experience with the 2006 crop led to changes in design and procedures, which yielded improved performance in the 2007 crop. His report indicated the machine removes leaves well but works better on drier tobacco and can leave pieces of stem on the stalks. It works better when the stalks are fed in upright rather than upside down, but this requires pulling some tips by hand. Further, the feeding process could be easier—the machine does drop stalks. The 2006 version could be overloaded unless carefully monitored by the worker, but the 2007 version gave much less trouble with this.
Automated stripping is still pretty new, said Pearce.
“There are a number of larger growers that have toyed with various kinds of stripping aids – everything from a nearly total automation where leaves are automatically removed and sorted to conveyors that carry the plant past workers,” he said. “Very few growers have gone to total automation where you feed in the stalks and it removes the leaves and sorts them. There are just a handful of growers that have access to that equipment to his point. There are perhaps 5 to 10 percent that use a stripping aid, where the worker would remove some leaves and set the plant in some sort of a conveyance system, which would take it past other workers who would remove the leaves in succession as the stalk was conveyed along.”
A more successful mechanized adjustment has been the switch to big bales. The labor reduction is welcomed, and Denton’s report said there are no worries in orientation of the leaf in the bale box. The bales are fewer in number and handled mechanically. While there are startup costs involved in the switch, growers that have made the switch are happy with it—labor savings are reported at up to 30 percent, with an estimate of five to seven cents a pound savings at a yield of 2,200 ponds an acre.
When considering a switch to big bales, Denton warned growers to look at the difference in anticipated savings and the upfront costs of initiating the switch. Larger growers can likely make the switch profitable. Denton estimated that growers in the 20,000- to 30,000-pound range were at the break-even point for equipment with a $10,000 initial cost and a $1,500 annual cost for upkeep, depreciation and interest.
The more mechanized harvesting is tinkered with, the more it slowly becomes a more viable option for the majority of growers.
“I think … we have got to continue to try and develop workable methods for it—the labor prices are driving a lot of that interest in those things,” said Pearce. “The costs of migrant labor keep going up and up, and that drives the growers to keep looking at mechanization. So I think we will see those trends continue as long as labor prices remain high and we continue to make inroads and adjustments in the development of the equipment to be workable to an individual growers’ situation.”
Denton’s report offered several cost-saving tips for burley growers to reduce their labor costs in the market prep stage:
- Only take down as much burley as you can safely store. There is a limited time in which burley is in natural order, and that time is when preparation should begin. That time will adjust from early season to late season as well.
- Burley tobacco taken down in low case and bulked on the stick is less likely to heat, an important factor in maintaining quality and weight.
- If you are paying workers, they need to have enough work to do. Have adequate space in your casing facility to case enough tobacco overnight to keep your market prep crew working without having to stop.
- Hands off. Whether mechanized or manual, handling in bulk as few times as possible keeps the bales in good order and focuses the paid labor on processes that are more valuable investments of a grower’s labor dollar.
- Take an assembly-line approach. Market preparation tasks are well suited to a factory-style process, with or without mechanization.