A hot new business - Fourth Quarter 2009
Turning steam into a revenue stream
TFQ Editorial Staff
"You need to wash the trays the day you set the transplants out [in the field],” says Eddie Baker, president of Cross Creek Seed. “You need to do it as soon as possible. If you let dirty dishes sit in the sink for two weeks, I don’t care how good of a dishwasher you have, you’re going to need a Brillo pad and a strong elbow to get those things clean.”
Just rinsing the dirt of the trays, however, isn’t enough.
“But a clean tray is not a sterile tray,” adds Sam Baker, vice president of Cross Creek and Eddie’s son.
Today’s tobacco growers face plenty of challenges, given diseases, insects, rising fuel costs, a shrinking demand for the product and everything in between. In these challenging times the last thing a grower wants to do is make things more difficult on himself by planting a tainted crop. In this ugly scenario, a soil-borne disease can contaminate planting trays, thus transferring to the transplants and moving out into the field.
To keep this from happening, growers have always been encouraged to sterilize their trays, a practice that traditionally had been done using the soil fumigate methyl bromide. Because of its damaging nature to the ozone layer, methyl bromide was targeted for reduction beginning in 1987 and was to be completely eliminated by 2005 except for rare allowable exemptions.
Now, farmers who need sterile trays are forced to look for alternatives, the best one being steam.
“Steam is the way to clean your trays,” says Chuck Miglianti, president of Beltwide Incorporated, a company that specializes in float system productions for tobacco. “It might not be for everybody, but if you have a large operation you can probably do it. In fact, it might be a good side business for the grower.”
Located in Raeford, N.C., Cross Creek Seed not only plants its own tobacco, but it also produces transplants for its customers. This year that combination produced the need for 52,000 sterilized trays. To accommodate that volume, the Cross Creek staff not only engineered a new, more efficient tray washing device, but it also elevated its sterilization capabilities to a new and impressive level.
After pouring a new concrete slab, Cross Creek placed three refrigerated trailer units down and removed the cooling systems. (The refrigerated units are insulated.) It installed one commercial heater on a 2-inch gas line to run all three units one at a time. It takes about 30 minutes to heat the water and steams the trays at 160 degrees for an hour.
“We have so many trays to go through that we had to make this operation as efficient as possible,” Sam Baker says. “We stack the trays in boxes, kind of what you do when you cure tobacco. Then we wheel the boxes in, space them 12 inches apart and let it do its thing.”
After the trays are cool enough to handle they are sealed in plastic to keep them clean until they are ready to use. Sam Baker says that Dr. Asimina Mila, a tobacco specialist in plant pathology at North Carolina State University, is beginning to investigate the best time to sterilize the trays—immediately after use where they would have to then sit empty for a long period, or right before they are used—but he doesn’t think there will be problems doing it either way.
In addition to the 52,000 trays Cross Creek sterilized for its own use, they also brought in outside trays to sterilize for local growers and clients. For 2010, Cross Creek plans to create a mobile steam station, carrying the unit around by trailer truck and taking it to farms interested in such a service. All they would need would be access to a gas line and water and they could sterilize anywhere.
Because of the initial investment needed and the overall magnitude of the project, installing a steam system probably isn’t realistic for every grower. However, access to such a system would certainly help any grower that produces his own float trays. Miglianti says a large operation that has a need and the resources for its own steam station could help offset the initial costs by charging local growers to sterilize their trays. Likewise, a group of small growers could combine to put such a system together on one of their farms and share in the costs before reaping the benefits.
It’s just one more way tobacco growers can help invest in their bottom line.