February 22, 2016


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In the 1950´s following the revolution that took place in Cuba many large landowners left the island to follow their capitalistic dreams. They brought very little with them as they were escaping political persecution and economic change. However, many of them brought sacks of seeds in the hopes of finding the perfect climate and soil to plant their beloved tobacco. For this reason, the majority of the Cubans who came would eventually settle in the small mountain town of Estelí in northern Nicaragua due to it richly phosphorized clay soil.

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Today Estelí is considered a mecca for the cigar connoisseur as the Cuban population continues to grow the Nicaraguan industry of tobacco. The landscape is littered with advertisements, plantations, factories and shops offering the second-best cigar in the world grown from Cuban seed (of course the Cubans are more than willing to give the mother-land the prestigious recognition of still being the world leader). For this reason thousands of people come to Nicaragua each year simply to visit the still growing industry.

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Cassie and I have enjoyed getting to know the process of cigar making, from the seed to the final product. While I was studying Spanish and working in a pulperia (your local corner store) across from the world famous Padron factory I was even invited to try my hand at rolling in their factory. Each day the workers would walk over smelling of sweet tobacco to buy bread and soda during the breaks. I would talk to them and eventually rolled a cigar which fell apart.

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The process of cigar creation begins with the germination of a tiny seed spread over small planters in large clumps. After the plants have grown they are then replanted into rows in large fields. It is similar to you growing tomatoes at home. Instead of putting the seed directly into your garden you are forced to start the seed and then transfer the seedling when it will be able to survive in the climate it needs to eventually thrive. The plants are then watered and weeded and eventually the leaves are picked in stages of readiness. Of course the majority of this is done all by hand (although we have seen oxen used to plow the fields). The leaves are then dried for up to a year. Farmers and factories then work to meld the flavors of various seeds to create a master blend of tobacco for each plantation and their world renowned cigars. Once the blend has been identified the cigars are then hand-rolled as thousands of Nicaraguans fill the factories six days a week preparing the final product.

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If I had to sum up the process in a word I would say it is intensive. It is also a large creator of jobs as the tobacco industry is almost completely non-mechanized. However, these jobs do not allow the majority of the workers to earn even a livable wage in return for their very labor intensive work. It has been an eye-opening experience to get to know a new agricultural endeavor so different from the bean and corn fields of northwest Iowa. The fact that so much labor is needed to go into production (similar to that of coffee or chocolate) has provided us with another appreciation for one of the many things that so many of us take for granted in our ever complexing world.

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