Nicaragua's Power Leaf

The cigar world turns once again to the potent tobacco of Nicaragua

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The money has changed some things -- his truck is new and cozy, and he's even allowed himself the luxury of a global phone, the type with an antenna the girth of a thirty-aught-six rifle that can reach anywhere on the planet via satellite for a hefty fee. "Short calls," Plasencia deadpans, booming a mock phone call to the lunchtime crowd. "Hello? We here. Goodbye." He air-slams the phone down, breaking up the room in laughter again.
Plasencia is funny, but he's a sharp businessman. During the cigar boom he claims to have made more than 30 million cigars a year, and he grew much of his own filler. Now he concentrates on wrapper.
"During the cigar boom I grew more filler and I bought the wrapper," he says. "Now I have the equipment, the barns, and I produce wrappers." Wrapper tobacco is where the money is, selling for $20, $30, $40 a pound, compared with less than $10 per pound for filler. "The small growers produce filler for me," he says.
Plasencia grows a variety of wrapper tobacco in Nicaragua, from Connecticut-seed to Habana2000 to sun-grown. The Connecticut and Habana2000 seeds grow tall, proud plants under cheesecloth shade.
"The shade has several purposes. It lessens the intensity of the sun. The plant, seeking photosynthesis, grows taller," explains Plasencia. "As the plant grows, the leaves get thinner. It also protects from insects and creates more humidity."
Plasencia isn't afraid to try new things. The Habana2000 has worked beautifully, and he's placed his son, Nestor Plasencia Jr., in charge of an organic tobacco project. Nestor Jr., 26, is shorter than his father, but has the trademark Plasencia stout frame and an easy smile. He's growing his second full-sized crop of organic tobacco, about 50 acres' worth.
"My grandfather started growing here in Nicaragua," says Nestor Jr. "It's hard work. You don't want to be the weak link in the chain."
Nestor Jr., who was trained as an agronomist in Honduras, digs his hands into a sandbox-sized tub of dirt and begins to wax eloquently about humus (which he pronounces ooom-uhs). It's worm shit, part of the all-natural fertilizer employed on the farm.
The Plasencias own a massive farming operation in Nicaragua and say they farm more than 500 acres in the country, with about 400 acres over the border in Honduras. More land is grazed by the thousand Sabu cows Nestor Plasencia owns, thus fertilizing the land for future plantings as crops are rotated. In one area, an army of sprawling tobacco curing barns cover the landscape like a tiny city. Habana2000 cures in some barns, Connecticut shade in another, green candela in yet another.
Later, on the long drive back to EstelĂ­ along the dusty, broken road to Jalapa, Nestor Sr. turns serious. "I came to Nicaragua when I was 15 years old with my parents. The Castro government confiscated our business in Cuba on October 3, 1963." Numbers and dates come easily to Plasencia, who has an unnerving attention to detail. "My father came here, to Nicaragua, working in Jalapa. I studied agriculture." Then, the unthinkable occurred. "In July 1979, the Sandinistas took the government. They confiscated all assets, we moved across the border [to Honduras]. February 1980, the blue mold entered this country. It was the first time [blue mold appeared] in Central America. The first crop the Sandinistas grew had blue mold."
The blue mold attacked across political boundaries, striking the Sandinistas and their victims with ferocity on both sides of the border. Plasencia lost crop after crop to blue mold, as did other growers. The problem became so severe that they abandoned their traditional practice of planting tobacco in the fall -- today, most growers in Central America plant in January and finish the harvest by April or May. And the days of twice yearly harvests are over.
The truck grows silent. The road is one long construction zone, and the work crews have stirred up dust storms of biblical proportions, which coat the car. With the setting sun glaring in the windshield as he drives west and south, Plasencia grows silent as he steers.
The visitor sits back in his seat and reflects. The blue mold is under control. The days of war seem a lifetime away. And the tobacco seems as if one day it could rival the legendary tobacco of the past. He organizes the thoughts of the day, and looks forward to the cigars of the evening.
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