Thursday, July 20, 2000

Ky. to test curing process

State's burley farmers enlisted to help develop safer cigarette

The Associated Press

        CYNTHIANA, Ky. — A Chester, Va.-based tobacco company has enlisted the help of 100 Kentucky burley farmers to test a curing process it says reduces the cancer-causing agents in cigarettes.

        Officials from Star Scientific Inc. visited Brian Furnish's farm in Northern Kentucky on Tuesday to unveil their plan to create a “safer cigarette.”

        “Really, it's a win-win for everybody,” said Jim Jennings, vice president of grower relations for Star, which manufactures cigarette brands G-Smoke, Main Street, Vegas and Sport.

        Mr. Jennings said the process reduces the amount of nitrosamines — cancer-causing carcinogens — in today's burley tobacco.

        The theory behind the process is that nitrosamines develop in the early days after tobacco is cut. In a series of experiments at the University of Kentucky, agronomy associate professor Harold Burton discovered that the cancer-causing chemicals develop under wet conditions.

        In tests in Mexico that Mr. Burton supervised earlier this year, the company discovered that climate-controlled barns nearly eliminated the nitrosamines, he said.

        The Kentucky farmers will participate in a pilot program to test the process, the first time it has ever been widely used for burley. In return, the company promises more pay to farmers that sell the specially cured tobacco to the company.

        The company wants to market a “safer” cigarette by year's end, Mr. Jennings said.

        Star is coordinating the program through the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. In return for the co-op's promotion, Star has promised to buy all tobacco through the traditional auction system.

        Mr. Furnish, the co-op's program coordinator, said he hopes the program will preserve the dying auction system, including price support and a grading system for tobacco.

        “I know that we're going to lose some good farmers, but I hope this will help the ones that want to stay in business, stay in business,” said Mr. Furnish.

        Before participating in the program, farmers must sign a barn certification agreement with Star. In return, the co-op delivers the green aluminum barn, largely assembled, to the farmer's door. The farmer must provide a concrete base and gas and water hookups.

        Once the barn is in place, farmers have to stick to a new regimen. Instead of cutting the full plant at harvest time, farmers start immediately, plucking five yellow leaves off the bottom of each plant.

        In a week, they must pull more. The plucked tobacco is packed into metal crates on wheels that slide into the barn. A gas heater and a fan regulate the temperature in the barn, keeping moisture out and curing the tobacco in one week. The cured tobacco can be removed and stored while new tobacco is brought in. Each barn can hold 10,000 pounds of burley.

        Farmers are curious about the process, but are more concerned with the financial impact.

        “I'll try it, but it's got to pay out,” said Owen County farmer Johnny Smith, 50.

        Last week's landmark $145 billion verdict against the tobacco industry in Florida was only the latest bad news for Kentucky tobacco farmers. The tobacco quota has been cut 70 percent in recent years, and last year's statewide drought forced farmers to spend heavily on watering their plants or harvest a smaller crop.

        Star officials said they want to help. They said farmers agreeing to participate in their new program will get a premium — 25 cents to 30 cents more than the common selling price per pound — if they sell their tobacco to the company.


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