It's harvest season in the Dominican Republic.
After a particularly dry 2015, the seedlings that went into the ground late last year have matured and are beginning to make their way to the curing barns. Tobacco farmers tend to shy away from assessing a yield until the tobacco has been completely cured, but many are beginning to gauge how the 2015 drought will affect their crops.
"The seeds were planted on November 1, after there had been a drought for most of 2015," said Manuel Quesada, owner of the Quesada Cigar Factory in Licey, Dominican Republic. "But the rain came in mid-December. It didn't reach the entire tobacco growing region all at once, but it rained enough so the canals filled up and the irrigation systems allowed us to water the crops."
Quesada said he has harvested only one-third of his crop so far. He'll have a better idea of how the drought affected his yield at the beginning of February when the harvest is complete—but he doesn't expect a major impact.
Siegfried P. Maruschke of Jose Mendez & Co. SRL, a major tobacco provider for Altadis U.S.A., told Cigar Aficionado that he expects thicker and oilier leaves from his irrigated farms, but is anticipating a below average yield for his dry-land crops.
"It seems the yields of Piloto and Olor tobaccos will turn out lower than average," said Maruschke. "The drought made it very difficult to grow tobacco in dry lands." According to Maruschke, dry, non-irrigated lands accounted for 75 percent of the Olor crop in the Dominican Republic and about one third of the nation's Piloto Cubano crop.
Maruschke's Piloto crop is in the middle of the harvesting process, while his Olor is still developing. Jose Mendez & Co has taken precautions with its crops in anticipation of drought by reducing the amount of tobacco planted in dry lands, and constructing man-made ponds for collecting and storing rainwater.
"Although this year's Dominican crop production will be reduced significantly," added Maruschke, "we expect to reach our production goals and obtain tobaccos of the highest quality."
At Litto Gomez's farm in La Canela, Piloto Cubano tobacco—which he generally plants earlier than other strains—is being primed and making its way to the barns.
"It was very dry at the beginning of the crop, then it rained a lot," said Gomez. Rain will sometimes damage smaller plants, but this year the rain came early enough that he was able to replant without significant setbacks.
As far as drought is concerned, said Gomez, it's not the dependence on rain, but the limitations on irrigation.
"We don't depend on rain, we irrigate ourselves," said Gomez. "However, if it gets too dry [the government doesn't] let us irrigate, that's when it becomes a problem." Gomez said for much of the season the law restricted him to three-day periods in which he was allowed to water. Even though some tobacco will be lost, Gomez said the yield he does get is much better when the sun is stronger.
"When there's a lot of sun you get a lot of nice, oily tobacco. So even if you end up losing some of the yield due to dryness, the tobacco you end up getting is very high quality."
At Davidoff's fields along the valley of the Yaque River, almost all of the tobacco used for binder and filler tobacco has been harvested. According to Richard Krutick, director of marketing for Davidoff of Geneva USA, lack of water and high temperatures has affected plant development and is causing the spread of a pre-existing virus.
Davidoff claims to have lost 20 percent of the crop and if it doesn't start raining soon, the loss could be even greater. Krutick said the company had anticipated unpredictable weather that might be caused by El Niño. "Climate change is unpredictable...which is why we began harvesting ahead of time... For example, the Piloto we harvested in October is finished without any complications, and we expect to have a normal yield and good quality."
Francisco Hernandez, general manager of tobacco growing operations for General Cigar Dominicana, said some growers had started the season one month late, hoping to bypass the water usage ban. General Cigar refrained from commenting on whether or not they took this course of action, but Hernandez said growers who planted late are now suffering the consequences of prolonged lack of rain.
"Growers who planted on time appear to be doing fine," said Hernandez. "However, for those growers who planted late and in dry lands, the tobacco developed slowly, matured later and yielded smaller leaves."
A previous version of this article first appeared in the January 19, 2016 issue of Cigar Insider.