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Cuba's Cigar Legend

Alejandro Robaina, the dean of Cuban tobacco men, and his grandson, Hiroshi, discuss the state of cigars in their homeland in a wide-ranging interview

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Robaina: Yes, they have it. A few days ago I was asking about this because I am considering, for the next harvest, the idea of planting a bit of Criollo tradicional.
CA: Isn't the yield of Criollo tradicionalcomparatively lower to the new varieties?
Robaina: Yes, it did produce lower yields. But the quality was higher. That is why I disagree in using seeds that have high yield rates. This goes along with what I have told you before: a lot and good do not walk together. That seed that the scientist mentioned, the one that would yield 20, 30 or so leaves? I disagree with him because the important question is this: what will happen with all that tobacco when it gets cured? Around 25 years ago I planted one kind of seed throughout the entire plantation. I remember that we collected what was called el vizcaíno. I planted with a set price, whether it was a good or bad harvest. The yield was very high. But that wrapper was a disaster. The entire wrapper harvest was lost at the curing stage.
CA: Isn't the Criollo tradicional smaller in size?
Robaina: Yes. Its leaves are moderate in size.
CA: Would you say the focus for cigar tobacco should be in the taste and in the quality?
Robaina: The perfect thing is to combine the taste, quality and growth of the plant. But a bigger plant will have problems with the wrappers and it won't work out. That is my opinion.
CA: What's your opinion on climatically controlled curing barns?
Robaina: It's like the traditional curing process but with special focus on temperature control, making it perfect. The wonder of this is that, for example, the tobacco that was cured this year still has its natural oils. With the system we were using before, we had the disadvantage that the tobacco would lose its natural oils.
CA: Why does the temperature need to be controlled? Is it due to the humidity levels or higher temperature?
Robaina: Both. This curing is done in a way that is very similar to what nature does for a plant…the temperature, the humidity are what they should be.
Hiroshi: The purpose is to guarantee the perfect temperature and humidity and that cannot be achieved in the natural environment. In the natural environment [traditional curing barns], there are changes in temperature and humidity all the time. The controlled curing barns ensure that both the temperature and humidity are perfect. Should these conditions exist in the natural environment, the tobacco could be cured in 22 days. [Editor's note: it usually takes twice that amount of time].
CA: Are there other changes that you and your grandfather have incorporated at the plantation recently?
Hiroshi: Yes, there have been changes, like we now have drip irrigation for part of the plantation, our own seedbeds are done in trays, and [we have] the new shade-growing tents. These are just a few of the new things we are doing. The rest is traditional and done the way my family has done it forever.
CA: Have you have learned a lot from your grandfather?
Hiroshi: The truth is that it has been easier for me than for my grandfather. He acquired his experience from his father and grandfather and from his own work throughout his life. For me, I feel it has been a lot easier because he has passed on to me the essence of all those years of experience. I have not had to experience the hardship he went through in his life.
CA: Do you know of any other young people in Vuelta Abajo that have had the same experience?
Hiroshi: I would say that family traditions have been lost throughout the years, not just in Cuba but all around the world. We have visited Italy and have seen that the young people leave the countryside to go to the cities to go to school, and when they finish studying they do not want to return to the countryside. There is little or no continuation of tradition. I believe there are still a few families that are keeping the traditions alive. But only a few are left.
CA: Yes. But it is so important that you keep the family tradition going.
Hiroshi: Yes, I think it is a fundamental issue.
Robaina: Tell James about your involvement with a group that specializes in agricultural studies.
Hiroshi: Yes, here in the farm it's just us two, me and my dad. Some people question the fact that my name is mentioned in the region when it should be my dad who should hold that place. These people think that we have jumped a generation, but the thing is, we're here do our work together so that everything is done correctly. It's not just tobacco.
CA: Doesn't your uncle Frank work here, too?
Hiroshi: Yes, and my cousin, too. He handles his own tobacco crop. We have other cousins and uncles who also grow tobacco. We have a lot of family in the vicinity that grows tobacco.
CA: Aren't there close friends that are considered family, too?
Hiroshi: Yes, friends that are like family and that grow tobacco. We exchange opinions, ideas and experiences with them.
CA: About 10 years ago, weren't there fewer families working on tobacco farms in Cuba?
Robaina: Yes, true.
CA: But now the government says that government-owned farms are not as good as family-operated farms. Am I right?
Robaina: Yes, you're right, and this is something everybody tried to make Fidel understand. We knew our way was the right way from the beginning. I told Fidel I did not like cooperatives or state farms and that the best way to grow tobacco was through family production. He wanted me to join a cooperative and I told him no. I would not do it and that I would remain working with my family. At the end he has understood to the point that a lot of the land is now in the hands of small farmers. Many of them do not have the experience, but some have turned out to be very good.
CA: People always talk about the wrapper growers, but don't the tobacco del sol [sun-grown tobacco] producers work well, too?
Robaina: They are very important, but you have to remember that sun-grown tobacco does not require the same care as wrapper. However, there is no doubt that they should be good producers because, as you know, 70 to 80 percent of the quality of cigars rests with sun-grown tobacco.
CA: Is it easier nowadays for you to get the petrol, fertilizers and supplies in general that you need for tobacco growing? Does the system work better now?
Hiroshi: We have not lacked petrol.
Robaina: I cannot speak for everybody else, but I can say that we have had a steady supply of petrol and we have not lacked resources in general.
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