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Ecuador: Land of Fire

Ecuadoran cigar wrapper tobacco thrives in a world of volcanoes and perpetual cloud cover.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

(continued from page 2)

The small temple was put there by ASP Enterprises, the owners of the farm. Workers come to pray, if they wish, and the Perez family believes that it helps watch over the tobacco and keep it free of pests.   The forces up above must not have been watching a few years ago. While rain is a regular event in Ecuador, it comes in regulated doses: the clouds above get a little misty at times, sprinkling the fields with a bit of moisture almost every day. But in 1996, it started raining Noah-style. And it didn't stop for 17 months. Growers blamed the torrential rains on the El Niño effect, which churned away in the Pacific, changing Ecuador's regular weather patterns. The rain washed away nutrients, soil and even small plants, creating an ideal breeding ground for fungi that thrive on tobacco.  

"The rain prevented the tobacco from maturing the way it should," says David Perez. "We had a lot of green spots, a lot less yield per acre and a lot less quality. It was a disaster." He says his wrapper yield during those years was slashed drastically.   Tobacco grown during the El Niño years is easy to spot. Some is subtly marred, with a few green spots on the wrapper known as frog eyes. These spots usually aren't detectable in the fields, but the eyes blossom in the curing barn as the moisture is drawn from the tobacco. Much of the damage, however, is less subtle. Some Ecuadoran wrappers ended up looking as mottled as a leper's skin, green and brittle. Due to shortages of tobacco, some manufacturers were forced to use these wrappers on their cigars.  

El Niño left its mark, but Ecuadoran growers have never had an outbreak of the worst tobacco pest of all--blue mold. "That's a bad word," says David Perez. "Here the air is humid. It's a very favorable climate for growing tobacco. And it's also very favorable for that bad word we don't use."  

The Perezes obsess about preventing disease. Several farmhands tend small vegetable and fruit gardens along the perimeter of the farm, but the Perezes won't allow them to grow tomatoes or peppers, because both of those vegetables and tobacco share disease, fungus and a common pest, the white fly. The company used to plant casaba on fallow tobacco land to rejuvenate the soil, but today it simply brings in the cows.  

"We try to eliminate as many host plants as possible for the white fly," says Joe Perez, as the gentle, rhythmic snapping of leaves sounds behind him. A small army of women are priming the tobacco leaves, moving through the rows like Lilliputians lost in the shadow of the Amazon, snapping off leaves of tobacco as they pass a plant. Many of these Connecticut-seed plants soar to 11 feet (dwarfing the six-foot-tall Sumatra-seed plants), so the highest primings are out of their reach. The women, most of them only five feet tall, have to stretch as high as they can and bend the tobacco plant to reach the sixth (and final) primings. The move typically breaks the plant, and the harvest is over.  

For every 20 women who harvest tobacco, two or three go through the rows ahead of them, yanking out entire plants even if they see just one diseased leaf. Another group follows them, quickly disposing of the bad leaves.  

The women doing the primings take a quick look at every leaf they pick. Every so often, one of them will let a leaf that doesn't live up to her critical gaze fall to the ground as waste. "If there's a leaf with a hole or a spot that you see in the field, there's no sense bringing it in," says Joe Perez. A half wrapper, which is a leaf that's damaged on one side, brings half the price of a normal wrapper. Binder-grade leaves are discounted even further. "We sort all along the way," says Joe. "We're not trying to produce a lot of pounds per acre--we're trying to produce as much wrapper per acre as possible." The Perezes say that starting their selection process in the field means about 80 percent of the tobacco that makes it to their barns will be sold as wrapper.   ASP has been involved with tobacco in Ecuador since 1987 and has been growing it there since 1991. Most of the 750 acres that the company farms is dedicated to Connecticut-seed tobacco. ASP owns a 2,000-acre farm near La Mana called Casjuca (short for Corporación Agricola San Juan C.A.), which is about a three-and-a half-hour drive northeast of Empalmé. ASP never uses all its land at once. The company has about 800 cattle that fertilize the fallow land--and make tasty steaks for visitors.  

Back at the family farmhouse, David Perez pushes aside his empty plate, the last chunk of grilled beef a happy memory. He pats his stomach. The click of billiard balls sounds from downstairs, the game of snooker at odds with the sounds of the jungle that surround the balcony. The night air is humid but comfortable. "Let's check out the tobacco," he says to his brother Joe. They pull on their boots, walk downstairs from the lush farmhouse to the truck and drive into the night.  

It's pitch-black outside. Birds howl in the distance and a pale frog hops away from the intruding glare of the headlights, splashing through the eternal puddles that dot the dirt road. In the distance, a tobacco barn comes into view in the lights of the truck. The soft glow of gas heaters leaks from vents near the bottom of the barn.  

The Perez brothers step inside, inhaling as they walk. Their noses tell them more than their eyes. "Can you smell that?" asks Joe, looking skyward. A flashlight clipped to his baseball cap cuts through the gloom, illuminating the lowest rows of tobacco. The air smells green, not unlike fresh-cut grass. "It's young. But it's curing. Not rotting," he says, moving through the barn as withered, drying leaves of green-brown hang over his head like expensive drapery.  

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