Sometimes opportunity presents itself, and you have to take a chance at it. That was the situation for Mack Grady, owner of Cureco Inc., a distributor of computerized tobacco curing controls in the United States.
Grady identifies, more so than most businessmen, perhaps, with the farming business he started in and continues to practice today. Grady is a farmer in Seven Springs, N.C., and has been growing row crops all his life, particularly tobacco. He laughs about his experience when he went into farming for the first time on his own.
“I was 17 years old,” he says. “I had 25 acres of corn, and I helped neighbors across the river harvest their tobacco. It was a dry year, and I lost all the money I earned helping my neighbors harvest tobacco that year on growing my own corn crop.
• With quotas shrinking in 2000, Mack Grady diversified into manufacturing.
• Cureco’s first product: a heat exchanger, designed to lower nitrosamines.
• The company now distributes automatic curing barn controls.
“But I learned a lesson,” he adds. “That was in 1981; the next year, 1982, I had 3 acres of tobacco. Wow, the money I made on that 3 acres of tobacco was the most money I had ever seen! It brought $2.05. It made extra pounds. I knew I was onto something.”
The next year Grady had 6 acres of tobacco. The next year after that he had 12 acres.
This year he grew 280 acres of tobacco, plus corn, wheat and beans.
“Over the years we’ve just gradually grown as others retired or quit farming,” he says. “We’ve just picked up acres along the way.”
Tempus fugit — ‘time flies’
For some of us, 1981 doesn’t seem so far back. On the other hand, it is more than 30 years ago.
On Jan. 20, 1981, the Iranians immediately released the hostages they had held for a frustrating 444 days — it was Ronald Reagan’s inauguration day as president. Kool and the Gang was the biggest thing on the radio with the group’s hit, “Celebration.” Muhammad Ali retired that year. Scientists identified the AIDS virus for the first time in 1981, and IBM introduced its first personal computer.
The Internet was largely unknown by the general public back then. Think about that. Then think about how our lives have really changed.
From then until now, Grady has gone through stick-and-string tobacco harvesting, mechanical harvesters with boxes and the change to tobacco bales.
“We’ve seen tobacco at death’s door several times in my career,” Grady says. “Many times it seemed tobacco was history, but Jesse Helms [the late former North Carolina senator] would do something magical and we’d go again. People have always talked doom and gloom on tobacco, but even in the Depression, tobacco did well. And now, with the economy down, the cigarette wholesalers haven’t seen a decrease in their sales. I think things look positive for tobacco right now. Maybe people who are nervous about their money, smoke more. Who knows?”
Making a transition
One of the critical times for tobacco was in 2000. Grady notes the industry was seeing quota reductions of 18% a year — and quotas were down to historically low levels. One of the many changes growers were undertaking, or about to undertake, was the switch to heat exchangers, designed to reduce nitrosamine levels greatly in tobacco in their barns.
As a farmer, Grady knew he was going to have to buy the new heat exchangers when they were available, and he got the idea that it would be a good diversification for him to provide the heat exchangers himself.
“I thought I’d try to turn what seemed like a bad thing to all the farmers, that they were going to have to spend all this money, into a good thing. I could not only provide the new exchangers to myself, but sell them to other farmers, too — and maybe make a profit.”
He set about designing a heat exchanger, then found a manufacturing facility in Baltimore, Md., who could build them for him at the level of quality he wanted. He says the exchangers worked great, and he soon turned up at trade shows and expos, getting the word out about Cureco Inc. products. It was a great learning experience, and he sold some heat exchangers — although not as many as he would have liked, in the first part of the switchover.
“The companies that were established — Long, DeCloet, Tharrington, Taylor — they were the folks that the farmers naturally went to, for the most part. But what I got was some experience doing trade shows and meeting other vendors in the industry. By the time Canada happened [Canada followed the U.S. in conversion of tobacco barns over to heat exchangers], we were more ready than we were in the U.S.”
During a trade-show situation, Grady met the manufacturer of his next big product, the MA052X automatic tobacco barn temperature and damper control, which he now distributes in the United States.
He didn’t jump on it immediately, however. Grady made an arrangement to use the barn controller for a year to see how it worked. If he liked it, he would sell it in the United States for the Canadian company.
He did like it, especially after he made suggestions for some improvements, which the company implemented. Those changes made the controller more user-friendly.
“It worked out,” he says. “It doesn’t automatically cure tobacco in the sense that the farmer still controls the cure. But the control helps and makes it easier for the farmer.”
The unit adjusts the temperature and also the relative humidity using the dampers, based on wet-bulb and dry-bulb readings.
The machine will advance the heat at various rates, going from one heat range to another at various rates — say, by one-quarter degree per hour — up to four degrees each hour or by various increments in between.
Although the farmer makes the call, the company provides a curing schedule, showing its general rules of thumb for curing procedures. The farmer knows best if the tobacco in a barn was basically green or very yellow when the process started.
“An analogy I use: You could sell a woman that was a terrible cook a $10,000 stove, and if you don’t give her a recipe to go by, then the food is still going to be terrible,” Grady says. “I think a good part of our success, other than having a really good product that does what the farmer asks it to do, is that lots of folks didn’t have a good recipe for curing. When you put the recipe with the product, the two work hand in hand.”
Fuel and time savings
“This control allows a farmer to be doing another task, rather than be tied down with the barns,” Grady says.
“It is hard to quantify, but we know it improves the product they go to market with. The unit produces tobacco that is more uniform, so we think farmers would get more money at the market as well. It is a product that pays for itself quickly. Still, each farm is different. One farmer might save more fuel than another, based on what kind of barns he has or how he was curing before. We meet farmers [using traditional curing methods] that aren’t burning a lot of fuel, but they have to spend a lot of time managing dampers. With this they can still burn less fuel, but they don’t have to invest so much time.
“Also, a lot of farmers are getting some age; they are tired of stumbling around barns at 2 o’clock in the morning. This is used as a way of transitioning to the next generation.”
The control features computer monitoring via the Internet. The company now has a waterless sensor available as well.
For more information about the sensor, the temperature and damper control, or about any Cureco products, visit www.cureco.us, or call 252-569-1714.