The same sun that gave rise to North Carolina tobacco fields for generations may give new energy to the curing process.
Bob Pope, owner and general manager of Eastern Carolina Manufacturing Co. in Edgecombe County, is putting solar strength to use curing tobacco in specially built barns.
Pope, a native of Robersonville who grew up across the street from a tobacco warehouse, worked in tobacco fields as a young man and struck on the idea for the solar barn during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when he was an architecture student at N.C. State University.
"I realized the value of alternative energy sources," Pope said.
At the time, however, tobacco was king and the barn market was saturated, leaving little room for enterprising barn builders. Pope bided his time by working as an insurance investigator, all the while perfecting his idea and keeping track of the fluctuating tobacco market.
"I recognized the demand for this crop would not go away and that the existing barn infrastructure on these tobacco farms was antiquated, deteriorated," he said. "I realized now was the opportunity to present my solar barn."
Today, Pope has three working prototypes and is planning on introducing his solar barn to the market as early as next year.
He's betting his technology is the right blend of past and present - a newfangled curing barn for an old-line product that once dominated the North Carolina economy.
A changing industry
It's still a tough time to be a tobacco farmer. Tobacco consumption in the United States is down, and government policies combined with changes in the industry are making it hard for small farmers to turn a profit.
According to a Congressional Research Services report, the amount of actual tobacco in each cigarette is 40 percent less than it was 45 years ago. Of the remaining tobacco in each cigarette, almost half comes from overseas, compared with only 10 percent in previous decades.
Meanwhile, a ray of good news for North Carolina tobacco farmers is the export market, which has a cash value that ranks it in the top 20 percent of the nation's exported goods, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"It would be reasonable to say that 65 to 70 percent [of N.C.-grown tobacco] is used overseas," said Sandy Stewart, a tobacco specialist with the N.C. Cooperative Extension.
Larger tobacco operations are replacing the small farms that once dotted the countryside. The end of the Federal Tobacco Price Support Program in 2004 released growers from acreage restrictions and withdrew the financial backing that helped stabilize tobacco prices at artificially high values.
As farms have grown, the bigger operations have more capacity to invest in high-tech equipment that can save money.
And that's where Pope comes in.
Cooking with sun
After tobacco is harvested, it must go through a "curing" process to break down unsavory plant compounds and convert leaf starches to sugars.
During curing, tobacco leaves are placed in a barn, slowly heated to dry and then re-hydrated. Most traditional curing barns burn propane to raise the barn's temperature.
This heating process is crucial for producing a high-quality tobacco product, but it guzzles fuel.
Pope's barn not only uses the cost-free power of the sun, it shortens the time the tobacco needs to be dried. The barn accomplishes this by wrapping the curing chamber in a solar air collector.
"The collector works passively by conducting heat directly to the tobacco through a corrugated steel collector plate that forms the walls and ceiling of the curing chamber," Pope said. "It also works actively by pre-heating fresh air used for curing before it enters the barn's propane-fired furnace."
On sunny days, the barn's solar collector maintains a constant temperature of up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Testing out the new barn
Cliff Keel, with Keel Brothers Farms in Robersonville, is one of three farmer co-operators who have tried the solar barn. Though initially hesitant about using the new technology, Keel now appreciates the barn's quicker cure.
"I had my second thoughts, but we ended up using it," says Keel. "This barn cures bright clean tobacco a day and a half earlier" than standard barns.
Wallace Roberts of Roberts Farms in Lawrenceville, Va., has used the solar barn for three seasons.
He said he gets a faster cure, and the barn saves him money by using less fuel.
"Right now, we're seeing up to 35 percent savings on fuel. We can cook out 12 to 24 hours quicker with a solar barn, and we can put more tobacco in the boxes," Roberts said.
David Reed, an extension agronomist at Virginia Tech, conducted studies on the solar barn's curing efficiency - the pounds of tobacco cured per gallon of fuel used in the process.
"Data from 2009 indicate an average gain in curing efficiency of 29 percent over seven cures," Reed said.
Reed and his team are analyzing 2010 curing efficiency data for the solar barn. This fall, ECMC delivered a solar barn to Clemson University for use in 2011. Philip Morris International funded both university research studies.
Considering the costs
For farmers, buying new equipment for the sake of green technology might be a tough sell, but Pope hopes the tax credit will help.
"It has been extended for barns put into service by 2016 and will reduce the net price of a solar barn to be just below that of a new standard barn," he said.
Reed predicts sales will depend on what happens with future fuel costs and growers' willingness to adopt a new technology.
"Perhaps the biggest factor is uncertainty in the industry regarding tobacco contracts and pricing," Reed said. "Our existing barn infrastructure is not the most efficient, but the investment in these barns was made years ago."