Ph.D. Student Maggie Short: Looping Back To Tobacco

NC State researcher stands in a tobacco field

Crop and soil sciences doctoral student Maggie Short grew up on a Guilford County, North Carolina, farm with strong tobacco roots. She came to North Carolina State University as an exploratory studies major undecided about her academic path – until she followed it full circle.

“I love gardening, growing plants, and love being on the farm, but I couldn’t fathom how any of that would be in a classroom,” said Maggie Short. “Now I think, ‘Why would I study anything else but agronomy?’

Bigger Than Burley?

Historically, NC’s tobacco dominance is in flue-cured and burley tobacco, which is blended and destined for cigarette production. Maggie is working with NC State Tobacco Extension Specialist Matthew Vann to develop nitrogen and potassium fertility recommendations for a tobacco crop new to NC – cigar wrapper leaves

NC State graduate student holds cigar wrapper tobacco leaves
Maggie Short holds cigar wrapper leaves from one of her research plots.

“Cigar wrapper tobacco is traditionally grown in the Connecticut River Valley area and parts of Pennsylvania, but we’re experimenting with it here because there is increasing demand for that style — and in NC we know a thing or two about tobacco,” Maggie winked.

Cigar wrapper tobacco differs from its flue-cured and burley cousins in the varieties grown but also in its intense management. Leaves must be blemish free and nearly perfect.

“Flue-cured tobacco is graded for color and body but its appearance isn’t essential,” Maggie said. “Cigar wrapper tobacco is handled with a velvet glove from planting to harvest, being extremely cautious not to damage the leaves.”

Burley tobacco growing in a NC field
Burley tobacco’s (pictured) leaves and needs are notably different than cigar wrapper tobacco.

She’s conducting trials at three NC research stations (Oxford, Clayton, and Waynesville) to pinpoint the fertility needs of this high-value crop. Since most cigar wrapper varieties weren’t bred for NC, Maggie is also learning about how this crop reacts to disease and pest issues in a southern climate.

Diversifying Risks and Management

The niche cigar wrapper crop is gaining popularity with growers who have seen a decrease in burley and flue-cured production numbers.

“On a pound-per-pound basis, cigar wrapper tobacco has the potential to profit significantly higher than burley and flue-cured. We all know it’s important to diversify on a farm, so some growers are considering adding cigar wrapper as an additional style of tobacco on their farm to spread out their risk.”

Cigar wrapper management does show some similarities to burley tobacco with regards to curing structures, harvesting the whole stalk by hand, and air curing without heat. Unlike burley and flue-cured varieties grown in this area, pest tolerance is less, requiring more intensive pesticide inputs. But the differences aren’t deterring growers who can adapt.

NC State graduate students stands with cigar wrapper tobacco leaves hanging in a barn

“Farmers are creative. I know of one who is curing cigar wrapper tobacco in an old turkey house because it works for him,” Maggie said. 

She notes that new growers are wise to experiment with one or two acres to start because of the crop’s intense management needs.

“It’s not a crop to jump into planting hundreds of acres. Working with NC Extension, we’re here to help them figure out the best way to do it.”

A Family A-Fair

Maggie watched her father and uncle grow flue-cured tobacco until the 2004 buyout when the farm converted to hay production. Her father, Pat Short, took an off-farm job managing the NC State Fair’s tobacco heritage exhibit, which NC Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler reignited in 2005. 

“In ‘05 we brought tobacco down from Oxford Tobacco Research Station and Commissioner Troxler brought a bunch of old timers who knew how to string it and we filled the barn,” Short said. “We cured it out, and it was a huge success. People stood in line to see this authentic barn from Reidsville and see tobacco cured. It’s authentic — exactly how I remember my grandfather doing it.” 

On NC State Fair day one, fairgoers and volunteers (including NC State crop science students) take shifts looping tobacco leaves by the bunch onto sticks resting on traditional stringing horses. It’s a family affair, open to the experienced and novice alike. 

NC State agronomy students volunteer at the NC State Fair tobacco display
Graduate students Chris and Cody Stainback volunteer at the NC State Fair tobacco exhibit.

Full sticks are hung in the demonstration barn and cured old-school style by fire for seven days. At the end of the week, the cured tobacco is ceremoniously sold in a mock auction.

The event has become a family tradition for Maggie and many others.

“We’re taking a step back in time to show people how things used to be done. My grandma taught me how to string tobacco; it’s what she grew up doing. We see many of the same families return year after year and bring their kids and grandkids. We show up to help with stringing and keep NC’s tobacco heritage alive.” 

Can You See Yourself in Crop and Soil Sciences?

If you are looking for an academic path that provides out-of-the-classroom research and real-world impact, consider crop and soil sciences. Our students learn from doing and contribute meaningful discoveries every day.  

Discover more about student degree pathways including deep dives into our soil science and turfgrass programs. Then sign up for an undergraduate’s guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with careers that solve global challenges is just part of how we are growing the future.