System to increase production when picking and handling Oriental tobacco

Extract from an article by B Viljoen, Farmerís Weekly, September 6, 1991.

In spite of existing expertise and a growing demand for Oriental (Turkish) tobacco, South Africa's production has declined to such an extent that tobacco has to be imported to satisfy demand by local cigarette manufacturers.

Oriental tobacco production is labour intensive with considerable manual handling of individual leaves.

In 1990 a Stellenbosch industrial engineering consultant, GPB Consulting, was appointed to look at alternative harvesting and processing methods.

GPB came to the conclusion that a system had to be designed to increase production during harvesting and that a system had to be developed for producers who had left the industry, or those considering increasing production, which would cut down further inputs in capital and labour to a minimum.

"Time and motion studies were carried out on the traditional harvesting and processing system," says Mr Potgieter. "We came to the conclusion that, although the existing harvesting was reasonably labour intensive, it was unlikely to be improved by modifications.

"We therefore looked at eliminating activities rather than modifications to the existing system. There is no market for low-quality Oriental tobacco, so quality is a very high priority. We decided not to deviate from the existing processing systems. This would have meant years of research to ensure that quality was not detrimentally affected by such changes".

After analysis it appeared that the only process which could be eliminated was the stringing of the leaves.

"In the present harvesting system, a picker usually picks four ripe leaves per plant and places these in a stack on his arm, hence the name an 'arm' of tobacco. A degree of skill is required for this, but the technique is easily learnt. As soon as an 'arm' is full, the leaves are placed in the picking bin. Picking usually has to stop at about 11h00, as the leaves become sticky and stick together as the day gets hotter. Picking can usually only be resumed at about 16h30".


The GPB alternative picking system consists of giving each picker a number of 4mm diameter wire needles about 1m in length. The length of the needle was chosen so that it could be easily handled in the rows, as well as requiring the minimum number of changes in the present wilting room and drying installations.

One end of the needle is suspended from the picker's shoulder by a rope harness. The picker now strings 8-10 leaves at a time on the needle instead of putting them on his arm. This is repeated until the needle contains some 280 leaves.

No further handling is required until the leaves reach the wilting room. There the needles with the leaves are simply hung on the existing frames.

Mr Potgieter says the expected financial saving using the new system is about 52 percent when compared with the existing system. "The most important advantage, however, is better utilisation of labour. With the new system it is possible during good weather to pick right through the day and to use the labour employed for the leaf-stitching process for picking as well. Since tobacco harvesting overlaps that of wine grapes and to a lesser degree vegetables, the maximum productive utilisation of labour is of paramount importance to ensure the whole crop is harvested at optimum ripeness".

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