A creaky, dented Peugeot station wagon crawls down a dusty, rutted dirt road, the driver far from certain he has found the right tobacco farm. Young tobacco plants, perhaps the height of two coffee cans stacked atop each other, are ready to be covered in shade. Workers, some teetering on stilts, have begun the arduous process of stretching cloaks of muslin shade—material quite like mosquito netting—over the young plants, covering the entire field. This is shade-grown tobacco, and the cloth will shield the leaves from the direct rays of the sun, resulting in supple, oily wrappers that might one day go around a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona or a Montecristo No. 2.
A well-fed dachshund comes out from the small house and yaps at the tires of the intruding vehicle that has invaded its territory. The little dog is more curious than defensive—few visitors make their way to this humble but elegant tobacco farm in San Juan y Martinez, located in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Río, a two-hour drive from the capital city of Havana.
Hector Luis Prieto steps out of his small home, located all of 20 yards from his shade-tobacco field. He has thick shoulders and forearms, with a broad-brimmed straw hat common to the farmers who work the land in this area. His hands are heavy, with rough palms from a lifetime spent working outdoors, and he walks slightly stooped. A dark cigar sits in his mouth and wrinkles surround his eyes, but Prieto is quite unlike most of his farmer neighbors here in the Vuelta Abajo, perhaps the finest tobacco lands the world has ever seen. You see, unlike most Cuban tobacco farmers, Prieto is quite a young man, all of 39 years old. His hair is still black. Despite the man’s youth, the leaves from his farm are among the very best in the land.
Prieto won’t turn 40 until August, but in his small-yet-comfortable house sits a heavy metal trophy that looks somewhat like a man holding a basketball. It’s the prestigious Habanos Man of the Year Award, production category, and Prieto won it in 2008 for having a higher yield of fine wrapper tobacco than any of his neighbors. He is the youngest man ever to win the award. Despite the accolade, and despite growing stellar leaf, Prieto’s is a name that is virtually unknown to all outside of the Cuban tobacco industry.
One reason that he toils largely in obscurity is his strong distaste for spending any time away from his land. When he picked up his heavy award in Havana, the ceremony didn’t conclude until late in the evening, yet Prieto insisted on driving the two hours back to his farm that night. “I feel like I’m in a golden cage in Havana,” he says through an interpreter, as he sits on a patio some 30 feet above the San Sebastian River that divides the sun-grown from the shade-grown fields on his land. “I like it here.”
It’s hard to argue with Prieto. The farm is gorgeous in its simplicity and tranquility, and much of what Prieto needs he grows here. He offers visitors cups of bracing, sweet Cuban coffee, beans he grows under a shade tree and roasts himself, then fresh-squeezed papaya juice and salty, succulent slices of thick ham on home-baked bread. A miniature cigar-rolling table sits by the porch, where Prieto’s friend and coworker Miguel al Cañer Cabrera Barerra crafts delicious cigars with long pigtail caps, using tobacco from the farm. There’s a telephone in the house, but it only works for 10 minutes a day. There is little to do but work, then, when the work is done, to sit on the porch overlooking the sun-grown fields and the lazy, flowing river, and smoke a cigar. It’s a good life.
Tobacco farms are one of few industries in Cuba that are actually private. Farmers run the land, but they must follow the guidelines set by the government and sell the leaf they grow to the Cuban cigar industry. “This was originally my grandfather’s land, but he had to give it to the government for some time,” says Prieto. The government returned it to the Prieto family in 1995, which was notable because of Prieto’s age. “At the time, the politicians were only giving land to people 50 years old or more,” says Prieto. While his father is also involved in taking care of the tobacco grown here, Prieto is the one in charge, which is reminiscent of the success of young Hirochi Robaina, the 34-year-old grandson of the late, great Alejandro Robaina, who is following in the footsteps of his famous abuelo. Prieto was the youngest farmer to get such land.
The farm is small, just enough. Prieto grows 40,000 plants in the open sunlight, and 60,000 more under the tapado, or shade. Its size is typical for the area. (Robaina’s Cuchillas de la Barbacoa farm is larger, growing 150,000 plants, all of them under shade.) Only six or seven people work on the Prieto farm this time of year. In the height of the harvest, when tobacco is going into the curing barns, there will be all of a dozen. “It’s hard work,” he says simply.Prieto thinks the farm’s size works to his advantage. “Tobacco has to be checked every day,” he says. “Campesinos [farm hands] have to walk through the field every day to do that. When it gets too big, you can’t do that.” Prieto says he checks his plants daily during the growing season, which can begin as early as late October and ends in February. Prieto began planting November 12. “I don’t look at the farm from a business perspective,” he says. “I look at the land with love. This land is a part of my family. Growers who want to achieve great results have to do that."
Prieto clearly has a rapport with the land. Walking his fields, the plants are green and vibrant, the leaves stretching toward the sun in the late morning. Forty to 52 percent of his leaves are able to be used for top-grade wrapper, an extremely high yield. One way he gets such results is by planting his crop in concentrated fashion, two rows in a row, with a space before the next, rather than one space between each row. This is a style known as doble fila, or double file. The method means that workers walk past one side of a tobacco plant rather than both sides, with reduced risk of breaking leaves. Because leaves that are broken can’t be used as wrapper, damage in the field reduces a farmer’s wrapper yield. The system also means he can plant more tobacco in a smaller field. “This system allows me to plant more plants, and we can work well between the rows,” he says.
Like all good farmers, Prieto is thrifty and proud. He boasts of reusing the shade netting, claiming to be able to reuse about 70 percent of it every year. When asked if it is correct to call him guajiro, Cuban slang for a no-nonsense, simple man of the earth, he beams. “For me, it’s a matter of pride that people call me a guajiro. It’s what I do.”
Prieto is also proud of his country. When sitting on his wooden porch, one’s eye is immediately drawn across the river to a shrine to Jose Martí, the liberator of Cuba. A bust of the Cuban leader is perched atop a massive chunk of marble, enshrined with words from the Cuban leader and next to a Cuban flag on a pole.
Prieto clearly loves his land. It’s impossible to know which cigars from Cuba bear his wrappers, but leaves grown here obviously go onto some of Cuba’s finest cigars. “I am a humble man, and I know my work is here with all the plants,” he says. The wind, calmer now, whispers through the trees, and the waters of the river continue to flow by as the dachshund catches a bit of sleep in the sunshine. “Everywhere in the world,” says Prieto, puffing on his cigar, looking around the small plot of land that is his favorite place on earth, “there are small areas that are blessed.”