in search of the perfect leaf
Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L) is a herbaceous perennial belonging to the Solanaceae family. It is considered an annual plant despite the fact that it produces new shoots when cut. It possesses a herbaceous, straight, woody stem, with large, full leaves that almost embrace the stem. They are pale green, although their coloration varies according to the species. Once adequately processed, these are smoked, inhaled or chewed.
Tobacco leaves contain, in varying quantities depending on the species, the cultivation conditions and the desiccation and fermentation treatments, an alkaloid (nicotine) that stimulates the nervous system. Moreover, nicotine stimulates the secretion of adrenaline.
The plant is native to the American continent, specifically the Andes area, between Peru and Ecuador. The first crops developed between 5 and 3 thousand years BC. Inhaling and exhaling tobacco smoke was one of many ways of consuming it in South America, since it was inhaled through the nose, chewed, eaten and rubbed on the body, among other uses. When America was colonized, tobacco consumption had extended throughout the continent. Europeans learned about tobacco in 1492, with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his expeditionary settlers to the Caribbean islands, where its use was habitual. Afterwards, it reached Europe through Spain and Portugal, where Jean Nicot, the French Ambassador to that country, introduced it to France. By 1531, the Spaniards were planting tobacco in the island of Hispaniola for comercial purposes.
Tobacco is better cultivated in tropical regions, with warm and humid climates. It grows well under uniform temperatures. In these climates, the leaves transpire less and their thickness decreases, making them finer. Cultivation is recommended at heights that range from 0 to 600 meters above sea level. The optimal cultivation temperature varies between 18 and 28 degrees Celsius. During its growth phase in seedbeds, it requires temperatures greater than 16oC. Dryer and warmer climates produce a shorter leaf with higher nicotine content. Sufficient water and high humidity produce larger leaves.
The best known variety is the Virginia. It is the most cultivated and its name comes from the state of Virginia, where it originated. It has a lighter color and lower nicotine content than the other varieties. The second most cultivated variety on the planet is the Burley, native to the state of Kentucky, which is stronger than the Virginia and is the most used in aromatic mixtures. In the Dominican Republic, the Piloto Cubano (Havanensis) variety is very popular and is used for the production of cigars. There is also a premium selection of leaves produced as wrappers for cigars.
Tobacco planting and production in the Dominican Republic
Hispaniola was the first territory in the world where tobacco was grown for commercial purposes, with the first plantations dating back to 1531. Despite constant prohibitions, landowners and independent merchants, whose knowledge was passed down for generations, formed a tobacco business around the town of Santiago. When the island came under French rule in 1795, tobacco exports to the European market grew. In 1870, a new era began for the Dominican Republic with the arrival of large capital investments, basically in sugarcane plantations, but tobacco continued to be the main crop for a large number of small farmers in the Cibao (northern region). In 1889, a Dutch company was established in Santiago, mounting a large-scale production. During the first decade of the 20th century, La Habanera and La Aurora were founded. Both had significant incidence on the cultivation and commercialization of tobacco and cigars. It is estimated that by 1907 the country had 87 tobacco factories and 25 cigar shops.
From 1930 on, important technological changes were implemented in the cultivation and processing of tobacco. Around 1959, several Cuban experts arrived in the country and founded the Tobacco Institute, promoting the cultivation of this crop. Tobacco cultivation and production have gone through highs and lows during the last 40 years. Nevertheless, during the same period, the cultivation of the Piloto Cubano variety practically doubled, encompassing about 15,105 hectares planted by 1998, a period in which the largest yield of this variety was achieved.
Tobacco and cigar exportation and its contribution to the national economy
The production of the Piloto Cubano variety, introduced in the country at the beginning of the 1960s, and the fact that we have been able to produce a leaf with the same quality as the Cuban tobacco from which it originated, helped to give life to Dominican tobacco. This attracted international firms to the country and resulted in the formation of other companies, turning the Dominican Republic into the foremost producer and exporter of premium handmade cigars in the world. In fact, in 2012 exports of cigars produced by industrial free zones exceeded US$500 million, including hand rolled cigars, which are highly coveted, as well as machine produced cigars. Additionally, outside the industrial free zones, US$12.3 million were exported between tobacco leaves and manufactured tobacco exports.
In addition to the foreign exchange revenue it generates, another significant contribution of tobacco is that in the last decades it has been one of the main sources of employment in the Dominican countryside. It is currently estimated that more than five thousand active harvesters exist, besides the thousands of Dominicans who work in the production of cigars for exportation.