The first tobacco leaf of the 2010-2011 Cuban tobacco harvest was picked today, and tonight it is hanging in a curing barn. It wasn’t just any leaf.
The first “libra de pie,” the bottom priming of the tobacco plant, came from the Robaina plantation in San Luis, the finca Cuchillas de la Barbacoa. In the wake of the death of the plantation’s patriarch Alejandro Robaina last spring, his grandson, Hirochi, is now in charge of production. Dave Savona and I visited the plantation today, mostly to give our condolences to the family, but the timing couldn’t have been better. We saw the first leaves hanging inside the barn, and we saw the field from where they had been harvested.
“I have a favor to ask,” Hirochi said to us. “Please let the world know the Robaina tradition continues.”
The Robaina name is renowned, both around the world and in Cuba, because of the legacy created by the patriarch, Alejandro. His name become synonymous in post-revolutionary Cuba with the finest wrapper leaves used on the most prestigious brands. But like any family business, when the next generation takes over, it would be easy to assume things were going to change... for the worse. It only takes a few minutes around Hirochi to feel his passion, to feel his determination to build upon the legacy of his grandfather, and to continue to the tradition of the family which began growing tobacco 165 years ago.
One example is how the Robaina plantation became the site of the first leaf picked for this harvest. “We planted on October 20, the first plantation in the Pinar del Río to put tobacco in the ground,” he said. But we asked whether it was risky to put tobacco in the ground while the hurricane season was still in full force.
Hirochi explained that on September 21 the weather had changed, and winds shifted to the north, bringing the first cool nights after the long hot summer. “My grandfather had always said that when the north winds begin, there will be no more hurricanes in Cuba.” So, he decided to take the risk and began his seed beds, and when they were ready, he put the plants in the ground—before any other grower in the region.
Maybe even more importantly, Hirochi believes that this growing season is the best that he has seen in 10 years—cool nights and warm days with almost no rain, the perfect conditions for producing great tobacco. Maybe he knew in his bones what was going to happen with weather when he planted; he expanded his production this year to 150,000 wrapper leaf plants and about 30,000 sungrown tobacco plants, all from the Corojo ‘99 hybrid, which derives from the original Corojo seed but with genetically engineered resistance to blue mold and black shank diseases. He expects to produce 200 quintales: each quintal is equal to about 220 pounds.
He isn’t resting on his grandfather’s laurel’s either. He began using two organic fertilizers, one which is a fermented horse manure compost, and the other, finely crushed peanuts in their shells that his grandfather last used more than 50 years ago. He said it was all part of an effort to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers.
“One of my dreams is to not just continue our tradition, but, hopefully, to make our tobacco better than ever.”