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Nicaragua's Power Leaf

The cigar world turns once again to the potent tobacco of Nicaragua
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

Something is wrong.

The visitor has been to Nicaragua before, but this is his first time during tobacco season. His black boots are coated with a layer of tan dust, a kiss from the dry weather that has scorched the Jalapa Valley for weeks. The midday sun beats down on his bare neck and arms, turning them red, and he squints at the mountains in the distance, which serve as the border of neighboring Honduras. This is the most prized growing area of Nicaragua, where dictator Anastasio Somoza once grew acre after acre of tobacco on farms named La Mia and La Suya, mine and hers.

Turkey buzzards fly at impossible heights, riding the heated air above with ease. Below, the visitor looks skeptically at a three-acre plot of tobacco. In his mind, he's comparing the sight before him with the tobacco fields of his memory, plants that he's seen in Connecticut, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador. Something just seems wrong.

The plants are too small.

The tobacco has been in the ground for months, and is almost ready to be primed, removed of its leaves one row at a time beginning with the row closest to the black soil. The tallest plants barely reach his neck, and are dwarfs compared with others he has witnessed.

Jorge L. Padrón isn't concerned at all. These are his plants. The 33-year-old is just shy of six feet tall, with a dark head of hair cropped in a short and fashionable style, and a solid build. He has a heavy brow that gives him a serious, pensive visage that hides a sharp sense of humor. A dark, round cigar bearing his name is clamped in his jaws. It was rolled this morning, and one of the tobacco leaves inside his cigar came from this farm.

The plants on the farm are Cuban-seed, growing in open sunlight without tents to shelter the glare of the sun. The Padróns simply call it Habano. This is the only type of tobacco they grow, and the only tobacco they use. From these modest plants, the family-owned company will get all of its cigar tobacco, from filler to binder to wrapper.

It's not an easy task. Conventional wisdom says that you don't grow premium wrapper tobacco in the open sunlight, certainly not in a place like Nicaragua, which has an unforgiving sun during the growing season. Certainly not with a seed like Habano, which grows squat, thick, dark leaves, not the big and silky variety prized for wrappers.

One Habano plant will grow 16 to 18 leaves, and most will become filler tobacco. Only two to four of the best from each plant will make the grade and be used as wrapper leaf. All of the tobacco, from this farm and the other 14 Nicaraguan farms that the Padróns own or contract, will be used by the Padróns. They sell cigars, not tobacco.

"We grow for ourselves," says Jorge Padrón, standing before the small plants. A puff of smoke is swept away by a stiff breeze that makes the green leaves bow a bit closer to the ground. "The person that grows tobacco to sell, it's not in their best interests to grow sun-grown."

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