The Grandson Also Rises
Hirochi Robaina, grandson of the late Alejandro Robaina, is a young Cuban farmer on a mission
From the Print Edition:
Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011
A year ago on the first evening of autumn, Hirochi Robaina pulled a chair to the corner of the porch of his tobacco farm, Cuchillas de Barbacoa, and sat down to feel the wind blow. He’d performed this ritual on the same day, year after year, with his grandfather Alejandro, the legendary tobacco grower of San Luis in the Cuban province of Pinar del Río. Only this year he waited alone. His grandfather had died the April before at 91, but the practice had to go on, not for sentimental reasons, but because this old family trick is better than The Weather Channel at predicting the threat of hurricanes to his young crops.
“On September 21, at midnight, you have to see how the wind blows. If the wind blows from the northeast, it will assure you will have a good year. If the wind is blowing from the south, you have to be careful,” says Robaina. “This year, the wind blew straight from the north. This was a good sign.”
That bit of local wisdom, passed down from two generations above, meant the difference between a bumper crop and mediocrity. It told him it was safe to start the seed beds and put the plants in the ground by October 20, earlier than any one else in the region. It was a bold move, a risk none of his neighbors were willing to take. Hurricane season doesn’t end until late November and the farm is located less than 10 miles from the southern shore of Cuba, whence the storms often strike. But the gamble paid off, and Hirochi’s yield was superb.
The dirt road leading to the best-known tobacco farm in San Luis, Cuba, is just as dusty as ever. The weather-beaten, steep-peaked, gray tobacco curing barn that stands sentry by the entrance still has the bright red paint on its roof that reads: Finca El Pinar Alejandro Robaina, but things have changed. This is no longer the old master’s farm. The jefe of this land is now Alejandro’s grandson Hirochi, all of 35 years old.
The younger Robaina has prepared for this role for nearly half his life, yet his task will be no easy feat. Hirochi is charged with following in the footsteps of a legend. When Alejandro Robaina, he of the sun-wizened face and straw cowboy hat, died, he was the best-known tobacco farmer who had ever lived. Regarded as one of the most talented men ever to coax tobacco from the earth, Robaina was the very face of Cuban cigars, his smiling, wrinkled visage immortalized on the brand Vegas Robaina. Hirochi worked at his side for 14 years here on the farm in Cuba’s westernmost province. Cuba is known for great cigar tobacco.
The very best comes from two towns, San Luis and San Juan y Martinez, and for years Alejandro Robaina consistently grew the best in the area, pulling crop after crop of stunning wrapper leaf from the beautiful ground.
Cuchillas de Barbacoa is a remarkable farm, with a mix of old and new curing barns (including some with modern calfriasas, which cure tobacco with hot blown air rather than the power of nature alone), a well powered by a gasoline engine and a comfortable open-air dining space with a thatched roof and rocking chairs for people to gather and smoke. But now it was time for him to handle the farm on his own.
When Cigar Aficionado visited Hirochi Robaina in May, a few days before his birthday, he had finished harvesting the 2010/2011 crop, his first crop without the aid of his grandfather.
Years ago when he would greet visitors, Hirochi didn’t look the part of the farmer. Fond of sleeveless T-shirts that showed off his bulging biceps and sporty, dark sunglasses, he looked more ready for a Miami nightclub than a Cuban tobacco field. Today, the weight of responsibility and a few years of age have mellowed his appearance. His arms are covered, his eyes visible to the world, his head covered by a cowboy-style hat.
Hirochi is a serious man who knows he’s been charged with a serious mission. And he has no small amount of pride that this crop, his crop, is superb. “This should be the best harvest for the past 15 years,” he says while smoking a cigar, one that is rolled here at the farm for him and his family, as well as for special guests. He has dark eyes and darker hair, and a powerful build that suggests he was tough to beat when he competed at judo as a younger man. He speaks in Spanish at first, talking through a translator, then shifts to English, for which he needlessly apologizes, as he speaks the language very well.
There were doubts that Hirochi could fill his grandfather’s shoes, doubts from inside and out. “All the representatives of the tobacco sector doubted that I could maintain the same level of quality that my grandfather did. I had to struggle because the image of every producer is different. It’s a matter of trust,” he says.
His own workers even challenged him, only days after moving the seedlings into the fields, when it poured. “Three days after being planted out, on this field, it rained for the whole day. Twenty hours of rain. And the workers said we have to remove everything, it’s too much water,” says Hirochi. “I looked at the plants, I went back to the house and I grabbed a notebook from 1998. It was written by me. I had asked my grandfather through the years and I was taking notes all the time.”
He found a passage about just such a problem and made his decision. “I said, ‘We’re not taking the plants out.’ The workers said, ‘This is not good.’ I asked for a special mineral salt for the ground. We put a tiny amount in the soil to dry out the field. Under protest.” He sits back in his chair, takes a puff of his cigar and puffs out his chest proudly. “That was the best lot of tobacco we had this year.”
Another puff of his cigar. The Robaina pride flashes in his dark eyes. “People talk a lot,” he says. Then a smile comes to his face. “You worry when the people don’t talk.”
He’s already made changes to the way things work at the farm, but they embrace the Robaina tradition. Hirochi had heard the tales of the old fertilizers used in the early days, cotton seeds and peanuts. “My grandfather did it 45 years ago. The best is peanuts,” he says. A chance meeting with a peanut farmer allowed Hirochi to get peanut seeds. Hirochi grew them into peanuts, then ground them into a powder that he sprinkled over the fields, a technique which hadn’t been used at Cuchillas de Barbacoa in decades. Other farmers in the area, Hirochi says, don’t believe in the method, although he says it was embraced long ago. “This method of using the peanuts for enriching the soil was widely used by American companies on the island before 1959,” he says. “Also on El Corojo, by Daniel Rodriguez.”
To hear him speak, one would think Hirochi was always a farmer, but that’s not the case. Born in Havana in May 1976, he studied metallurgy in school and competed at judo until his teens. He made pizza, a job he did well and enjoyed, until he was 17, when his grandfather told him it was time to change jobs. Alejandro wanted Hirochi to begin working as a roller in a cigar factory. “My grandfather sent me to the factories, and at the time I never understood why,” he says. He was stung by the decrease in pay the career change required—making pizza had earned him about 10 times what rolling cigars at the entry level would. But in time he understood his grandfather’s logic.
“My grandfather wanted me to learn the whole process of making a cigar,” he explains. “To produce and plant tobacco you need to know the whole handmade process. There is a synergy between the field and the factory.”
He worked in the cigar factories during the week—first Partagás for one year, then H. Upmann for another—and would visit the farm on weekends for discussions with Alejandro. “Every day, I made two cigars of my own, and on the weekend took the cigars to my grandfather to get his opinion.” Hirochi can still roll a very good cigar, which he did with flair at a small rolling table set up near the fields during our visit.
Stewardship of Cuchillas de Barbacoa skipped a generation—the farm went from Alejandro to his grandson, rather than to Hirochi’s father, Carlos Robaina, who works at Havana’s superb Casa del Habano at Fifth Avenue and 16th Street, aka Quinta Avenida. “My father had a problem with his skin—he can’t receive sun,” explains Hirochi. “For him the sun is strong. Here all the job is in the sun. That’s why he is in the shop. He comes here every weekend.”
Alejandro was more than just a grandfather to Hirochi. He was a mentor, a master, a guide through life. And when Hirochi was a very young man his abuelo guided him through trouble with a simple card.
“Once, a long time ago, I had a failed love affair and I started to drink,” says Hirochi. “I was 17 years old. I got so drunk, I got dizzy and fell. Someone called my grandfather.”
Alejandro Robaina wrote a note to his grandson on a small card, a card that Hirochi still has to this day. It read: “Hirochi, you are my hope. Don’t let me down. —Alejandro Robaina.”
The words hit the teenager like a slap. “I cried for three days,” Hirochi says. “That helped me solve my problem.”
Those days are long behind Hirochi. Now there is the farm, and the name Robaina, which is at once a huge asset yet also a liability, a benchmark set oh-so-high, which he now strives to live up to. The young Cuban farmer embraces the challenge.
“For me this year is important, but the next year will be more important. I want to prove that it’s not luck,” he says. “I don’t want competition with the rest of the farmers. I want competition with the rest of the world. Nicaragua, Dominican Republic. We have the best tobacco in the world, but they have nice cigars. The construction is good, the draw is good, but always Cuba cigars are too much better. They’re the best. And I don’t say that because I’m Cuban. We have to continue to make the best.”
He chafes at those who doubt that a younger man with a face unscarred by the sun can grow great tobacco. “The image of a tobacco farmer is not just a man in a field. It’s also of a gentleman. The way you look doesn’t tell you the quality. At the end,” he grabs a robusto-sized cigar from his ashtray, the wrapper the color of a perfectly polished brown shoe, the oils gleaming, “at the end, this is what matters.”
The final days of Alejandro were tough on Hirochi. Weary from illness, Alejandro was bedridden, with his grandson carrying the frail old man around as needed. In his last few days, he slept most of the time, often with Hirochi holding his hand. But he was well enough to say his last goodbye to the workers at the farm.
“Before he died, he called every worker into his room and said goodbye to each one by blowing kisses. Then he called in each member of the family and said goodbye. I was the last one. He smiled, he went to sleep, then he passed away,” says Hirochi. “The doctor said, ‘Never have I seen anyone die so peacefully.’ ”
With the first harvest done, and done so well, some of the pressure has been lifted from Hirochi’s thick shoulders. It’s his farm now. But the memory of Alejandro remains strong. The love Hirochi feels for his abuelo is evident, and he remembered him when the tobacco came in.
“When we finished the harvest, I took the two best hands of tobacco and put them on his grave,” says Hirochi. “I think he’s happy. Everything here is being run the way he liked.”
The teachings of Alejandro Robaina live on at Cuchillas de Barbacoa. The mysterious ways, the tricks of the trade. And sitting in that chair at midnight on the right day, to check for the wind.
Every September 21, so long as he is able, so long as the farm is his, Hirochi Robaina will sit in that chair at midnight, waiting for the wind to blow.
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