Modified tobacco equipment combats bacterial wilt

By Tom Lollis

Modified tobacco equipment

Because of a conversation about harvesting bananas, Clemson scientists are developing new equipment to protect the state’s tobacco crop from bacterial wilt. The disease can knock out as much as eight percent of the state’s $100 million crop in a year.

Plant pathologist Bruce Fortnum suspected that growers were spreading the disease with their topping and harvesting equipment. At an international conference, an African scientist said that the same disease attacks bananas. To prevent it from spreading, harvester’s knives are sterilized before cutting each bunch.

Fortnum tested his hypothesis at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence. Tests confirmed that mechanical toppers did spread wilt, while hand-topping did not. “This state was pretty much free of bacterial wilt until the late 1970s because most of the farms were small and the work was done by hand,” said Fortnum. “That’s not feasible with today’s larger farms.”

A team of Clemson scientists worked with equipment patent holders in North Carolina to develop a new system that sterilizes the blades used to remove the tobacco flower. The new design will be available for a limited number of growers in 2006. Now the team is working to make similar modifications available for harvesting equipment.

For information: Bruce Fortnum, 843-662-3526,