Cuba’s elite tobacco farmers
The elite Vegas de Primera are first-class fields ranked above all others for the exceptional quality of their soil and microclimate, and the rare degree of skill that goes to produce their crop. They have their own special style of cultivation, and the work that this entails is extraordinarily hard.
The Veguero – farmer – is typically in charge of half a million plants or more, and each must be visited more than 150 times during the nine-month growing process.
Preparing the land
Tobacco plants flourish in the loosest possible soil, so fields must be ploughed carefully in a certain pattern to a certain depth several times before planting. Animal traction is still used to avoid compacting the soil.
Growing the seedling
A note on sheer size: About a thousand small tobacco seeds fit in the palm of a hand; enough to produce about 30,000 wrappers.
Seedlings are grown in special seedbeds, with a covering of straw for protection.
After 45 days, when the seedlings reach a height of 13-15cm, they are ready to be transplanted.
After 18 to 20 days, soil is heaped around the foot of the plant to promote strong roots.
Around 40 days after transplanting, the harvest can begin – a tedious task as each leaf must be picked by hand, two or three leaves at a time.
There are always a few days between each harvesting step to allow the remaining leaves to develop. To completely harvest a single plant takes about 30 days.
The harvested leaves are sent to the farmer’s barn for air curing, which is just the first of many stages that the leaf has to pass through.
The leaves are sewn in pairs and hung astride poles, which are placed on racks in the barn.
As the leaves cure, the pole is raised progressively higher in the racks. Ventilation and light must be constantly adjusted to allow for natural variations in temperature and humidity. This process lasts for around 50 days.
The extraordinary labour of shade-grown tobacco
Wrapper leaves are exceptional in every respect. About 10-20 days into the growing season, a remarkable sight greets the eye – the fields are entirely covered under canopies of muslin cloth.
Each plant is then individually strung to the frame.
Irrigation is critical. The plants must get just the right amount of water at the moment they need it.