One of the best regions for growing tobacco in Cuba is the Pinar del Rio region which is where we were.
To understand the agriculture you must understand the end product.
There are three parts to a Cuban cigar. The filler, which contains four types of tobacco; Seco, Volado, Ligero and Medio Tiempo. The binder, which is made from Subcapa or Capote and the wrapper which is made from Capa.
The filler is folded together and then wrapped by the binder. Then one end of the cigar is cut clean and the cigar is placed into a wooden mold. The cigar sits in the mold for 30 minutes, at which point the second end is cut clean, the cigar is rotated 180 degrees, and left to sit for another 10 minutes in the mold.
The cigar is then beautifully assembled with the wrapper and glue made from sap of the Canadian Maple, a completely innocuous substance. It is recommended you wait a week to smoke.
We visited a 16 hectare farm owned by the Montesinos family. The farm plants, on average, 150,000 plants per year which equals approximately 6 tons of tobacco.
Tobacco in Cuba is started with seeds provided by the government’s laboratories. It is put in seedbeds in September and planted in the ground when it is around 20 cm. Tobacco takes about 3 months to grow and is harvested when the plant reaches between 1.6 and 1.8 meters in height.
Tobacco is a highly seasonal crop yielding one harvest per year. The soil rotation is augmented with taro, corn, and yucca.
While we enjoyed watching Paul Montesino roll cigars and sell them to us, this is strictly for the tourist trade. The law requires that the farmer turn over 90% of the crop to the government.
Habanas are the last cigar that is 100% rolled by hand. When the tobacco enters the factory it is inspected and graded. It then heads to the main room of the factory to be assembled as I have described above.
The question remains, if the government owns all the cigars why various classifications and brands. The Cuban government recognized how valuable the concept of a Cuban cigar is and through the years have honored the “terroir”, growing and blending knowledge and the history of the various regions.
Habana cigars are classified by three classifications called “Vegas finas de primera” one of these classifications is color: light, red, light red, green and ripe red. Another is size. The distinctions would take a far more sophisticated person than I to edify.
There are also labels, many types of bands and labels are there to ensure you are buying a Habana, but with the embargo, smuggling has made much of these superfluous.
Basically there is the DOP seal (designation of origin). Since 1994 the word Habana has been “hot stamped” into boxes to act as a warranty seal of the Republic of Cuba.
This is an excellent time to discuss Agrarian Reform.
The very first of Castro’s reforms was the Agrarian Reform on May 19th 1959. This reform permitted land owners to keep only 30 Caballiera. A caballiera is slightly less than 14 hectares and 1 hectare = 2.47 acres.
A year later a second, more rigid reform limited the land ownership to 5 caballieras.
In the late 60s the Castro government needed more land for growing sugar cane and other food products. This lead to a type of proposal to the farmer.
The government would move you into a more rural area, provided you with a home, furniture, appliances and ensure that the children had a school within a reasonable walking distance. This was a completely voluntary project but quite an appealing one for most of the farmers.
Those that worked the government owned land would become tenant farmers versus the farmers that actually owned their own land.