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From Seed to Shelf

Five years ago, the cigar you're smoking was nothing more than tiny little seeds
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

You're about to put flame to the foot of a handmade cigar, and for the next hour you plan on enjoying its rich, sublime smoke. You know it was carefully made by hand, exclusively from tobacco, but have you any idea how long it took to get to this stage? As you puff, consider the time involved in this $5, $10 or maybe $15 piece of luxury you're enjoying. Because the best handmade cigars take longer to create than fine automobiles, bespoke suits or even the house in which you live. From seed to smoke, the journey takes several years.

Cigar tobacco begins as a seed, a tiny object the size of a candy sprinkle. The seeds are so small that they need to be pelletized, coated with an inert substance such as clay for easier handling. (The coating melts away when watered.) Many tobacco growers get their seeds by selecting their heartiest plants and harvesting the seeds from the flower that grows at the top of the plant.

The seeds' size make them quite easy to smuggle, one reason why Cuban seed has made innumerable trips from the island to such places as Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Some companies, such as A.S.P. Enterprises Inc. in Miami, keep their seed locked in safes and grow sterile plants to ensure that competitors can't steal the product.

The seeds are planted to create seedlings. In about 60 days, a seed will turn into a seedling a few inches tall that's ready to plant. The crudest form of seedling plot is planted directly in the ground. When it's time to move to the field proper, the tiny plant is dug up and then replanted, a traumatic process that results in great mortality of seedlings. Raised beds provide better results, and planting in trays makes it better still, for the root balls slip fairly effortlessly from the trays and are ready to go into the ground.

At that stage, cigar tobacco grows at a furious pace. It takes about two months for a seedling to grow into a mature plant, depending on the type of plant. Once harvested, it spends another 40 to 60 or so days in a curing barn. After that, it's time to ferment, and then to age.

But farmers can't go by a calendar for their harvest. Weather, seed variety and other variables can affect the crop, and harvest times have to be adjusted accordingly.

"When it comes to dates, that is a guide," says Angel Daniel Núñez, executive vice president of manufacturing and tobacco for General Cigar Co. In a normal year, the Connecticut-shade plants he grows to make Macanudo wrappers are harvested after 45 days, but relentless rains in 2003 pushed that to as many as 57 days.

While some fields in the Dominican Republic and in hilly plots of Ecuador are planted by hand, many farms are planted with the use of a tractor dragging a transplanter. On a broadleaf farm in South Glastonbury, Connecticut, Al Gondek and Charlie Lake are using a Holland transplanter to set four-inch-tall seedlings into the ground. "We try to plant as much a day as you can harvest in one day," says Gondek, who gets behind the wheel of the tractor, while Lake sits in one of the metal seats in the transplanter, his back to Gondek's. The tractor begins moving down the field, digging a furrow. A hopper with cylinders spins, and Lake drops a seedling into each one. The little plant slides down the cylinder and is put into the ground by the transplanter, which gives it a healthy dose of water before closing up the earth around its stem. "It'd be kind of heartless if you put that little plant in there with no water," says Lake.

(Despite their tender care of the seedlings, Gondek and Lake would lose the entire crop to a hailstorm less than a month later, an event that typifies the sometimes brutal vicissitudes of the business.)

General Cigar uses an older version of the same machinery to plant its shade and broadleaf fields. The seats—there are five on one model—sit lower to the ground, and instead of a circular machine there are little arms that swing down, grab a plant and put it in the ground. On a recent summer afternoon, five men sat in the seats, one drove the tractor and a quartet with hand spades followed, to tidy up the plants. The earth on this particular farm was rocky, not ideally suited to the machinery.

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