Spring is in the air and that means it’s time to plant tobacco at the FSG farm in Clermont, Florida! Last week we planted 60,000 seedlings, all grown from authentic Cuban Corojo ’99 seed. Each January, in the greenhouse, we start our seeds in styrofoam float-bed trays. Sixty days later you have a heathy seedling with a nice pyramid-shaped root mass that will tap deep into our sandy soils.
Each tobacco seedling is placed in the ground by hand by two people who ride on the back of the planter. For each seedling, the planter machine punches a precisely spaced hole in the plastic mulch that we use to cover each row. The plastic mulch helps retain soil moisture and blocks out weeds, eliminating the need for herbicides. The planter machine also gives each seedling a dose of liquid fertilizer, soil & root conditioner and water. To conserve water and deliver a slow but steady flow of fertilizer and nutrients, we use drip irrigation on all our fields.
Florida Sun Grown tobacco at 5 weeks after transplanting. At this stage the plants go into a rapid growth phase where plants can grow several inches overnight. During the heat of the day, under the intense Florida sun, the leaves start to wilt in the afternoon. Shortly before sun down, the leaves spring back up towards the sky.
Florida Sun Grown Corojo tobacco at 6 1/2 weeks in the field. The tobacco is still in the rapid growth stage growing up to an inch overnight. If you look carefully you can see the bud emerging from the top of the plant. In three days we will begin topping each plant by hand, where we snap the bud/flower off the plant. This will stop the vertical growth of the plant which results in larger leaves on the stalk of the plant.
There are a lot of definitions for word “sucker”, but in this case we are talking about a tobacco sucker. In this pic you can see two small leaves or “suckers” growing from the main stalk of the plant. After a plant is topped, where we break the flower off the plant, new shoots of leaves will start to emerge from base of each leaf where it joins the stalk of the plant. If allowed to grow, these suckers will eventually turn the plant into a bush, with small, undesirable leaves. So throughout the harvest, we are constantly checking for suckers and removing the larger ones by hand and applying an organic “suckercide” to each and every plant to prevent new ones from growing. Each tobacco plant will produce up to three sets of suckers at each leaf, so this is a very labor intensive process.
We sew each tobacco leaf onto a lathe and string using a specialized, 1950’s vintage tobacco sewing machine. Back in the day, American farmers used to use these exact same machines up in Quincy & Havana Florida. Unfortunately, that was so long ago that anyone who knew how to work on these machines is long gone.
At this stage, the tobacco is curing beautifully in the barn, slowly drying and turning green to brown. This is a slow process that takes around 60 days to complete. This is a critical process; too much humidity and the leaves will get moldy and the stems will rot. Not enough humidity and the leaves will dry too quickly and lock in the chlorophyll and result is a blotchy green and grey leaf. This particular leaf is from our second priming. The veins and stem are the last to dry and this leaf should be fully cured in a few more weeks.
Florida Sun Grown tobacco is packed and inspected by the USDA and the Florida Department of Agriculture and ready for export to Nicaragua. Once the tobacco arrives at its final destination in Esteli, the tobacco will go through the slow fermentation process and several years later be blended and hand crafted into special cigars. It has been challenging sometimes working with the government inspectors in Florida as we are asking them to inspect cigar tobacco for export and they haven’t done these types of inspections in over three decades but the inspectors now have the process down pat. It’s worth noting that the folks that work in the Department of Agriculture seem to want to work with businesses and help, unlike most government regulators and inspectors that are often burdensome and problematic to small businesses.