There’s a new tobacco variety being tested in the mountains of Western North Carolina — one that has a ready market and money-making potential.

It’s called cigar wrapper tobacco and is the blemish-free outer wrapping of a cigar, said Tucker Worley, a horticulture research specialist at the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Mountain Research Station just outside Waynesville.

This is the second year of a trial at the research station of a tobacco variety called Connecticut Broad Leaf. Beyond determining whether the higher elevations in North Carolina are a suitable environment for the crop, the research includes a variety of control points such as determining the ideal amounts of nitrogen and potassium needed for optimum growth.

Worley is no stranger to tobacco. His Leicester area family used to grow burley tobacco and later transitioned to the greenhouse end of the business by providing bedding plants to other tobacco growers in the region.

Growing cigar wrapper tobacco is far different than burley production, however, Worley said, stressing a strict management regimen is required to produce the unblemished leaves needed to provide the perfect presentation for a cigar.

“This requires an intensive fungicide and insecticide spray program to ensure nothing damages the leaves,” he said. “Once they are damaged, they don’t repair themselves.”

The leaves are about 9 inches by 20 inches, he said, and only unblemished ones fetch top dollar. If there is minor damage on a leaf that can be cut away so there’s enough surface that’s wrapper quality, the dockage isn’t as much.

Unlike burley tobacco that’s sorted by stalk position, cigar wrapper tobacco is sorted into four categories — wrapper, binder, straight strip and filler. Wrapper is the highest quality, but the leaves in the binder category have large swaths that qualify for outer wrapping. The last two categories are marketable, but at a greatly reduced price, Worley said.

For decades Western North Carolina producers grew burley tobacco, a highly profitable cash crop many farmers credited with sending their kids to college and making ends meet during the tough years.

In 2004, there was a tobacco buyout whereby the quota allotment for growing tobacco ended and those with quotas received compensation for relinquishing their allotments. The transition removed the base guaranteed price for tobacco, which began a market-based system.

Instead of selling their tobacco crop at auctions, now growers contract directly with companies to purchase their corp. The buyer the research station is working with is Lancaster Leaf, a subsidiary of Universal Leaf, Worley said.

Not your grandaddy’s crop

Producers used to growing burley will find cigar wrapper tobacco production much more challenging and labor intensive, Worley said.

“I think typical burley growers might have some issues with this crop,” he said. “It is much more labor intensive, and you want a perfect leaf. It has to be handled much more carefully.”

For instance, once a plant is cut, generally in late August, it has to be put up in the barn to cure within 30 minutes or so. Within half an hour, the leaves will wilt just enough so they will be soft as they cure until around Thanksgiving time.

Instead of bringing the crop to market in tobacco baskets or bales, growers must carefully place the leaves, by grade, in oversized boxes that require two people to handle because of the bulkiness.

The reward for having a large quantity of perfect leaves is high. Estimated prices for cigar wrapper tobacco are between $4 and $6 a pound for the wrapper/binder grades, and up to $1.75 a pound for the lower grades. Research indicates cigar wrapper tobacco yields between 2,300 and 2,500 pounds per acre.

In contrast, burley tobacco prices last year were around $2 a pound with a per-acre yield similar to that of cigar wrapper tobacco.

Most of the cigar wrapper tobacco is grown in Virginia and border states, but so far, tests in Waynesville and its sister research station in Clayton look promising, Worley said. Still, commercial production could be several years out.

For research to be published, a crop must be studied for a minimum of two years, Worley said. Then, it will take time for producers to become accustomed to the new way of doing things.

Worley said the company suggests new growers start off with just an acre to see how it goes.

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