If you love cigars--if you're a true cigar aficionado--you probably wonder, every now and again, what life is like for the hard-working folks who grow the tobacco for your favorite cigars.
Well, if it's premium cigars you like to smoke--perhaps by the box, perhaps one by one in a premium cigar sampler--then the first thing to know is that your cigar is made by people from all over the world. In many premium cigars, the wrapper (outer portion) of the cigar will come from one region, the binder (inner leaves which help hold the cigar together and add something to the flavor) from another, and the filler (from which much of the flavor comes) from another.
Why all this international complication? Well, there are three things to remember about the tobacco plant: as plants go, it's lazy, wimpy, and picky.
Picky. Some organisms have evolved in order to maintain survival at all costs (locusts and Circus Peanuts come to mind), but that's not tobacco. This plant thrives in a very particular set of conditions. In fact, those conditions are essentially the ones that you'll experience if you stick a finger in your humidor--a high level of humidity (sixty-seven to seventy-four percent relative humidity) but a low level of actual wetness; mild warm temperatures (sixty-nine to seventy-three degrees); sunlight, but not too much of it. Tobacco has evolved to prefer soil that is wet, and yet it doesn't want to be rained on. Talk about impossible to please! That's why the world's best filler, according to common opinion, comes from Cuba's Vuelta Abajo valley region. Here, the soil is rained on extensively most months out of the year, but conditions are dry during the growing season: the soil stays wet without the plant getting battered in a storm. Perfect!
You don't find conditions like these everywhere--in fact, it'd be tough to find them anywhere in the United States, which is why we're not known as producers of filler tobacco. Nicaragua, Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and a number of other countries are also ace filler-tobacco producers. For the more leathery, sturdier leaves that make the best wrappers, though, the United States offers a handful of ideal locations. The East Coast in the summer, for example, with a level of rain that hurts filler tobacco (though some is produced there) but is just fine for wrappers, produces some of the finest wrappers in the world.
Filler produced in less-than-ideal conditions commands a lower price on the world market, which makes it a less efficient cash crop for farmers. Why not grow wrapper tobacco and make more money, since the United States offers ample conditions for the production of world-beating wrappers?
Lazy. When you plant tobacco seeds, you don't actually plant them in the traditional sense of the word--you sprinkle them on the ground, let them lie on the surface, and they take root of themselves. (Some planters will swish them in a pail of water and dump the water willy-nilly on the ground.) Tobacco seeds don't like having to fight up from underneath the ground.
Obviously, this strange trait also means that tobacco seeds can't be planted just anywhere. Places that are prone to frost until late in the year are insalubrious locations for tobacco farming. Anything that disturbs the area close to the soil's surface is going to have negative implications for the survival of tobacco seedlings.
Wimpy. The same plant that doesn't like fighting up from underneath the ground is also afraid of overdrying, overwatering, too much sunlight, too little sunlight, mold, and nearly every other problem that can bedevil a plant. Think of Connecticut Shade tobacco, the kind grown mostly on the East Coast and often used as a wrapper. They call it Connecticut Shade because it is literally grown under the shade of huge nylon tents which makes this crop's life as undisturbed and pampered as possible.
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