Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Periodically, we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.
There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting flue-cured tobacco research at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station.
Tobacco has a long and rich history in North Carolina, and for as long as our farmers have been growing it, plant breeders have been looking for ways to grow it better. Plant breeders look for ways to make tobacco more disease-resistant and deliver higher yields. Much of this research has taken place at Oxford Research Station and other research stations across the state. This station has 27 acres of tobacco grown for research, and its 102-year history closely parallels the history of flue-cured tobacco technology.
“Greater than 70 percent of varieties of tobacco grown in North Carolina comes from research done at the stations,” said Dr. Ramsey Lewis, associate professor of the tobacco and genetics breeding program at N.C. State University. “In fact, greater than 55 percent is the variety NC-196. If a plant has the prefix NC in front, it was developed on a research farm. It’s a great partnership between N.C. State University and N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.”
Lewis works to develop flue-cured tobacco varieties for North Carolina and other parts of the world. “Tobacco is easy to breed for one desirable trait, but it is difficult to combine all desirable traits into one plant,” he said. “How tobacco is pollinated hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. Desirable parent plants are still crossed by hand, with the pollen for plant A being mixed with plant B. To make sure you know what two plants you are crossing, you do the work by hand.”
Tobacco might be a centuries-old crop in North Carolina – but its uses continue to change. About 600 plots (or 5 acres) are devoted to tobacco breeding research at the station. Other tobacco research being conducted on additional acreage includes biomass, pharmaceuticals, transgenic and agronomic. “Some of the breeding work we are doing is on varieties with higher nicotine levels that might be used in e-cigarettes, or some countries are looking for lower-nicotine varieties,” Lewis said.
Other researchers are looking to develop more effective sucker control, herbicide use and insecticide use. Suckers are buds that form on the plant. Farmers want to remove these buds to keep more nutrients going to the leaves of the plant.
Tobacco at the station is harvested just like tobacco on a farm, with four primings from bottom to top. A lot of the tobacco is harvested by hand or with a harvest aid. The tobacco is then cured in a barn, evaluated for yield and quality, and receives a USDA grade. Samples of the cured leaf are sent to N.C. State University for a chemical analysis. Graded tobacco is then sold.
About an acre of the tobacco grown at this station is sent to the N.C. State Fair. It is used in a tobacco-tying competition on the first Friday of the fair. After the competition, it is loaded and cured in a barn in Heritage Circle. On the last Friday of the fair, the barn is unloaded and the tobacco is “sold” at a mock tobacco auction. Fairgoers can check out the Oxford-grown tobacco daily in Heritage Circle.
Tobacco may be central to the on-going research at the Oxford Station, but it isn’t the only research. In 2013, the station also became home to the Bioenergy Research Initiative. This program supports the research and development of forestry and agricultural feedstocks for bioenergy production.