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Seeds of Hope

The Fuente Family Bets On High-Quality Cigar Wrapper Grown in The Dominican Republic
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

(continued from page 4)

As he speaks a group of men walk from the far side of the aisle behind a minitractor. They walk into the rows of tobacco and "top" (remove the buds that would later flower) the tobacco plants. Stand-ing nearby is Danilo Moncado, one of Fuente's farm supervisors. Moncado, 52, is stout, wears a constant smile and looks sort of like a medieval friar. He mentions something to one of the workers and then comes back, reaching up to pull off a flower as he approaches.

"The instinct of the plant is to reproduce, and all the nutrition will go to the flower. It's just like some people who mature differently. This plant will mature more slowly than the one next to it, but we have to top them at a time of relative uniformity." It is obvious that Moncado was once a primary-school teacher (after the Sandinistas drove him out of Nicaragua where he had worked growing Cuban seed wrapper for the Olivas).

Moncado's peer, Ariosto Mendez, is also a supervisor, but is more scientific, which reflects his background in the harder world of tobacco politics, working as director of the Tobacco Institute from 1978 through 1983.

When the Olivas came to El Caribe in 1984, they offered Mendez a position as farm head, which got him out from behind a desk for the first time in six years.

Walking toward the sun-grown portion of the farm, Mendez explains nearly everything in scientific terms. "We plant

ed the tobacco latitudinally to take advantage of natural irrigation (which we can see because this soil was washed here by the river), the motion of the wind and the movement of the sun." He even adds a touch of common sense to the argument behind growing Cuban seed wrapper when the market has yet to develop: "Growing piloto Cubano gives higher yields of filler and binder than Connecticut because it has more taste." Mendez notes that much of the Connecticut seed tobacco grown in El Caribe under the Olivas was too weak to sell as premium filler.

Mendez, Fuente and Moncado walk along the soft earth under the shade, each with a different explanation for the hows and whys of tobacco. "It's very uncommon to see Cuban seed tobacco grown in shade," says Fuente, noting that the only other place where it's done is Cuba. (A Cuban-seed-wrapper plot is also under cultivation now in Nicaragua.) He says that early in the winter planting season it makes sense to grow tobacco under shade; while the Dominican sun is still quite strong. Mendez adds, "the veins are thinner and finer in shade; they are more elastic, so they stretch when rolled." And Fuente gives the final touch: "Shade just has more finesse."

Of course, for Fuente, there is a downside to having thin, shade-grown wrapper, because the leaf not used in his own cigars will be less suitable for resale as filler. He even admits this, saying that the sun-grown tobacco on his farm will yield more filler and binder precisely because the vein structure is stronger. "If the leaf is too thin and it is used as filler, it won't spring back to open up air passages for good draw, so you'll get a hot smoke."

Everything on this farm requires a combination of delicacy and brute strength. Hands, several dozen pairs, are necessary for every stage of growing and harvesting: from planting the tented seedlings, to sewing tobacco leaves onto the poles for curing, to carrying yards of plastic pipe between the plants for irrigation sprinklers.

As he walks toward the curing barn, Fuente looks around at all the hands hard at work. "I've heard people say that Cuban soil is blessed. It's not. It's the people that made that tobacco great. We have Danilo, who only leaves one hour a week to go to church on Sundays. But sometimes he's been up at four in the morning because it's raining very hard. And he had a fever and a cold, but he's there with the people because if they're getting wet working, he has to get wet working. You can't read that; you can't learn it in a book--you're born with it."

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