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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

Volcano Guagua Pichincha is blowing its top, sending plumes of ash and gas six miles into the sky. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, just seven miles away, is coated with layers of hot soot and the airport has shut down. Ninety miles due south in the Andes chain, another volcano, Tungurahua, is doing the same thing, spitting ash at the sky like an angry god.

In the Andes foothills, some 90 miles to the southwest of Pichincha and 80 miles northwest of Tungurahua, John Oliva Jr. points at the gray flecks on the bright green leaf of tobacco in his hands. It looks as if someone has flicked a burning cigar over the tobacco plant.

"That's volcanic ash," he says. He's standing on a rise near the town of Empalmé. In front of him are hundreds of acres of lush, green tobacco plants. Each is about four feet tall; each has a sprinkling of ash. The winds have carried it to Oliva's plants, repeating a cycle that has played out for tens of thousands of years.  

Ecuador is a small nation in northwestern South America, slightly smaller than the state of Nevada, but it's home to 32 active volcanoes. The rumbling mountains are bad for nervous travelers but good for farmers—volcanic ash is one of the most fertile substances in the world. "It's like a fertilizer," says Roberto Baquerizo, who runs the Ecuadoran operations for Oliva Tobacco Co. "It messes up the leaf, but for the soil, it's good." Some of the ash is creating trouble in Oliva's curing barns, where tobacco dries from bright green to light brown. The ash on the leaves is impeding the curing process, but it's not affecting all the leaves.

The Olivas consider the ash a minor problem—tomorrow, most of it will be gone, washed away by the gentle, misting rains that are common during the Ecuadoran tobacco growing season, which stretches from May into January.  

"Volcanic soil is ideal for growing tobacco," says Joe Perez, a vice president with Miami's ASP Enterprises Inc., the largest tobacco grower in Ecuador. The constant cycle of erupting volcanoes peppers Ecuador's soil with nutrients, constantly replenishing the earth. Perez, whose family also grows cigar tobacco in Mexico and Nicaragua, says the soil in Ecuador is the best he's encountered.  

"This is the most unique environment in the world for growing tobacco," says Oliva, a 35-year-old executive with Tampa Florida's Oliva Tobacco. In addition to the volcanoes, there are the clouds. First-time visitors to Ecuador tend to stuff their suitcase pockets with sunblock—after all, the nation sits right on the equator. But travelers to the interior, where bananas and tobacco are grown, find that the nearly constant cover of thick, gray clouds provides its own healthy measure of SPF.  

"The sun shines for 500 hours a year here," says David A. Perez, Joe's brother and the assistant vice president at ASP. He stares for a moment at the clouds looming over several acres of six-inch-tall plants, which will soar to more than 10 feet in less than two months. "That's our cheesecloth," he says.  

Cheesecloth, or tapado, is used in Connecticut, Cuba and Nicaragua, among other places, to protect tobacco from the direct rays of the sun. The shade keeps tobacco leaves silky and thin, with small veins. In Ecuador, the clouds provide that protection.  

"You don't need shade here," says Oliva. "The tobacco comes out perfect. It's one less artificial manipulation you have to do to the product."  

Premium cigar tobacco has been cultivated in Ecuador since the 1960s, when growers searched the world for wrapper alternatives to Cuban tobacco in the wake of the U.S. trade embargo. Today, Oliva Tobacco and ASP harvest most of the leaves that end up on cigars smoked in the United States. The Perez family concentrates on Connecticut-seed tobacco, a leaf that tends to be light and golden brown. The Olivas specialize in dark-brown Sumatra-seed wrappers, green candela tobacco and small amounts of the dark and oily Habana2000.  

The Olivas grow tobacco on five farms in Ecuador that are split into two regions. (Every Oliva farm in Ecuador is named after a wife of a family member, with the exception of Don Angel, which was named in honor of Angel Oliva Sr., the founder of the company who died in 1996 at the age of 89.) Near Barranco Chico, a town east of the southern port city of Guayaquil, the Olivas grow on 220 acres, split into two farms. The company once grew all of its Ecuadoran tobacco here, but for the past three years it has used this area pri-marily for candela tobacco. Candela is cured at very high temperatures to lock in the green color of the plant. These green wrappers are used on some machine-made cigars and on a limited number of premium cigars, including some Berings and Arturo Fuentes.  

Three years ago, the company more than doubled its operations, adding three farms on a 300-acre spread near Empalmé. They shifted their Sumatra-seed operations to the new plot and recently planted a few acres of Habana2000 wrapper. All of it is being grown for Douglas Pueringer, the co-owner of Tabacalera Tambor S.A., the Costa Rican manufacturer of Bahia cigars. Pueringer is using it to make Bahia Millennium cigars.  

The Olivas have been handling Ecuadoran tobacco since 1975, and they began growing it themselves in 1980. The company moved to Ecuador after more than 200 acres of its Nicaraguan farmland was nationalized by the Sandinista government in 1980. They needed to find a substitute for Nicaraguan tobacco for Frank Llaneza of Villazon & Co. After trying several seed varieties, they settled on Sumatra.  

"We tried Cameroon, we tried Cuban, but what Frank liked best was Sumatra. That was the one that really had the taste. Frank was the guy that popularized this wrapper," says John.  

"It was the nicest wrapper that I had smoked in a long time," says Llaneza. "The taste and burn were very close to perfect."   Llaneza uses the Ecuadoran Sumatra on Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars. Oliva's Sumatra tobacco also wraps La Gloria Cubana, Puros Indios, Cuba Aliados and JR Ultimate cigars. Tabacalera A. Fuente also uses Sumatra-seed Ecuadoran wrappers for its popular new Arturo Fuente Aged Sun Grown and Ashton Virgin Sun Grown cigars, although the phrase "sun grown" is a bit of a misnomer. "Cloud grown" would be more appropriate.  

Cigar sales may have slowed in the United States, but Oliva says that demand for its Ecuadoran tobacco is increasing. The company's 1999/2000 plantings are up 15 percent from the season before. "We're running out of barn space," says Angel Oliva III, 33, an Oliva Tobacco executive. "We're building more barns now."  

As in Connecticut, each curing barn in Ecuador needs heat to dry the tobacco properly. The Olivas use gas burners in some of their barns, but in others they employ a very old-fashioned method--charcoal pits. In the dim light of a typical Ecuadoran day, the pits emit a soft, red light, bathing the barn in a roasted, herbal aroma as they gently nudge the temperatures higher, pushing the chlorophyll and ammonia out of the drying plants above.  

A horse slowly strides across a fallow tobacco field, his hooves sinking into the dark dirt. He steps across the dried stems of an old tobacco crop. The old man on his back sits easily in the saddle, his face a crisscrossed map of wrinkles from a lifetime working outdoors.  

The veguero gently eases back on the reins, and the horse stops. The man squints, looking up at a gazebo, where a statue of the Virgin Mary sits inside, protected from the tropical mist. After a moment of prayer, the old man crosses himself. He pulls the reins to the right and heads back to the work of the day.  

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.  

They step into the next barn. "Smell the difference," says David. The air is fresher and more leathery. The tobacco above is older, nearly ready to be taken down. Then it will be fermented in bulks and shipped to various customers around the world. (The Perezes don't disclose their clients' names.)  

"It's a good crop," says David. "Nice colors, nice textures."  

His neighbor to the west, John Oliva Jr., is just as happy with his harvest. "This is the best crop that we've had," he says. He steps from one of his curing barns as the mists swirl above him in the sky. Every few seconds, a drop of humidity falls like a lazy rain on his face.  

Oliva stoops, picking up a palmful of dark, gray soil. It's peppered with small stones, the byproduct of one of the dozens of volcanoes that constantly churn in this country.  

"Do you see how this land is?" He crumbles the dirt in his palm, seeing the same promise that brought his grandfather Angel to this country 25 years ago. Flecks of the rich soil drop on his boot. He looks up, a wide smile on his face, and shrugs his shoulders. "It's just very good land."

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