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The First Family of Tobacco

For decades, the Oliva family of Tampa, Florida, has been supplying tobacco to many of the world's top makers of premium cigars.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 3)

John agrees. Then he takes it a step further: "I'll go with a farmer from Cuba to Honduras. He'll start kicking the dirt, looking at it, picking it up. Then he'll say, 'Right here. This is where we will grow the tobacco.' There are some atmospheric conditions which tell you that you can grow, for example, green wrapper in one place but not another. You are dealing with a crop that never comes out the same way any two years in a row. Glacial soil in the Connecticut Valley allows some of the best tobacco in the world to come from there. But try growing broadleaf anywhere else in Connecticut and it won't taste as well. It's the soil. What's the big deal about tobacco from Cuba? The soil. I've been on farms in Cuba where the tobacco is great on one side of the road and no good on the other. About the only thing you can count on with tobacco is that somewhere down the line, something bad will happen: a barn will burn down, a disease will hit, you'll have a hail storm."

One of the worst case scenarios transpired in the 1980s when Hurricane Fifi ripped through Honduras and Nicaragua, bringing blue mold with it--a virus that attacks tobacco leaves, thrives in cold, wet weather, and is anathema to anyone who needs to earn a living as a tobacco grower. "To kill blue mold, we use Ridomil, a preventive chemical made by Ciba Geigy, but the problem is that blue mold's a virus, so it keeps changing," says John. "The only way to eradicate it is to stop growing tobacco for 90 days. We burn the diseased tobacco, plow the fields, and start from scratch. We try to fight it by growing tobacco in stages, and there are some new chemicals out there, but we don't like using chemicals because they can affect the taste of the tobacco." With resignation, he adds, "When the cold fronts come down, you have more of a chance of being hit with blue mold. But nobody can predict the weather."

Tobacco growing members of the Oliva family have learned to take the business' downsides in stride. Despite losing fields during revolutions in Nicaragua, they have returned there and are bringing the embattled nation's crop back to satisfactory levels of quality. "Between the city of Jalapa and the Honduran border [where the best tobacco plantations were], fields were land-mined and barns were burned," explains John. "The foreigners who were technologically oriented have left the country. But the land is still very fertile. Nicaraguan tobacco is of a lesser quality than it once was because people there need money and are moving it out at a faster rate, throwing tobacco into loose-leaf bulks so that the uniformity isn't what it used to be and the leaves break." But the Olivas are not sitting back and letting good growers go bad: "We have Nicaraguan co-ops that we're financing. We are sending over humidification equipment, emphasizing that the curing be done in a slower fashion regardless of the demand for tobacco. The Jalapa Valley is a big area, and a third of it is not being used now. But eventually it will be."

Within the next few years, the Olivas predict that Nicaragua's output will reach prerevolutionary standards. This is an issue of particular interest to Johnito, who stands to reap the most rewards from the rejuvenated farmlands there. As the youngest member of this cigar dynasty, he has a vested interest in the future of the tobacco market, and he's grateful for the current boom in premium cigar sales. "We will probably see some leveling off," he allows. "But there will also be a good, steady, consistent business, similar to the way cigars were prior to the Cuban embargo. I predict that there will be more of a demand for stronger tobaccos and higher quality cigars."

As he climbs into his Land Cruiser and drives to The Columbia, a 92-year-old Cuban eatery in Ybor City that just might qualify as America's original cigar bar, he contemplates the mark he hopes to leave on the company that was founded by his grandfather and computerized by his father. "I'd like to see us growing tobacco in Cuba," he says. "We'd be able to modernize the growing in terms of soil analysis and fertilizer programs and finding out what the soil can take. You know, we'll never go back as long as Castro is there, but after he's gone..." His voice trails off for a moment in consideration of the possibilities. Then Johnito Oliva quietly vows, "It will be awesome."

Michael Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. Remembering Angel

A few months before his death in August 1996 at age 89, Angel Oliva gave a rare interview to Florida-based writer Luanne Mathiesen. During the comprehensive conversation, he discussed, among other subjects, the creation and progress of his Oliva Tobacco Co. and his philosophy of growing premium cigar tobacco. What follows are excerpted portions of that interview.

CA: So you learned very early the secret to growing good tobacco.

Oliva: Secrets?

CA: There must be something that separates great tobacco from good tobacco.

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