Havana Corner: Hanging Around the Harvest

One look is worth 1,000 words. As much as it is a cliché, it means even more in Cuba. Sometimes you just have to see it with your own eyes to really know about what's going on with tobacco. So, in mid-March, I took a taxi from Havana to Pinar del Río to catch what I thought would be the very end of the harvest, and I was surprised how many plantations still had knee-high tobacco in their fields. This harvest is a late one.

Nonetheless, Cuba looks to have a generous and rich crop of tobacco this year, if the weather holds out. The harvest was almost a month late due to extremely wet weather caused by hurricanes in October and November. Most of the tobacco seedbeds in the key growing regions of the Vuelta Abajo were swept away in floods. The tobacco growers had to pick much later. And the weather in March had been dry, sunny and hot -- perfect for ripening tobacco leaves. The growers expect to harvest lots of strong tobacco this year, which will help to buttress blends.

Growers such as Alejandro Robaina, whom I visited during my quick trip to the tobacco region, expected to have an exceptional harvest. He had already picked almost his entire crop. "It looks to be excellent," said the 87-year-old legend. "My family and I are very excited."

Robaina is considered the best wrapper grower in the Vuelta Abajo region. His 45-acre tobacco estate near the town of San Luis delivers some of the finest wrappers in the world. This year, Robaina said that he planted primarily two types of cigar tobacco -- Corojo 99 and Criollo 98. "They are much less susceptible to blue mold than Habanos 2000," he said. "And I like the flavor and quality that these tobaccos deliver."

The only concern with tobacco specialists in the region is that the two varieties are sensitive to a fungus called black shank, a disease that affects the roots of the tobacco plant and inhibits its growth. It is a widespread problem not only in Cuba but also in other tobacco-growing regions in the world. Last year, about half the Cuban crop was of Habanos 2000 seed and growers had a terrible time, said one employee from a tobacco institute in the Pinar del Río region. This year, that type of tobacco is not being used.

Robaina prefers the new tobaccos compared to Habanos 2000, claiming they have better texture and flavor. However, he said that his favorite remains Corojo Antigua, the age-old wrapper tobacco that was dropped in the mid-1990s because of low yields and blue mold problems. "High yields are not everything," added the grower. "Flavor and quality were more important."

The tobacco technician let it slip out that Cuba has just developed a new variety of leaf that it was very excited about. It's called Criollo 2006. "It's a vigorous tobacco that is both resistant to blue mold and black shank," he said, adding that the plant grows very tall, producing 24 leaves per plant, instead of the normal 16 or so with more popular varieties.

When Robaina heard this, he looked rather skeptical. "It doesn't sound right to me," he said. "Vamos a ver (we will see)."

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