Artisanal tobacco industry shows sparks of potential in Puerto Rico

Small-scale farmers usually grow and harvest tobacco leaves while artisans craft the cigars. But these young Puerto Rican farmers and artists do both.
Antonio and Francisco Castro grow tobacco on the HidrOrgánica farm in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
Antonio and Francisco Castro grow tobacco on the HidrOrgánica farm in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.Charlotte Scott / USC Annenberg

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By Charlotte Scott

RÍO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — On an island that imports over 80 percent of the food it consumes, Francisco Castro aspired to have his own farm, where he could grow fruits and vegetables that are 100 percent free of pesticides and chemicals.

His vision came to life five years ago when he founded HidrOrgánica. He now sells the produce he grows to local residents, restaurants and Freshmart, a chain of organic grocery stores on the island.

“He who controls the seeds controls life,” Castro, 29, said.

Hurricane Maria brought devastation to Puerto Rico in 2017, destroying most of the island's crops. But Castro saw an opportunity to expand his farm's operation to include tobacco.

“After Hurricane Maria, there was a great food crisis,” he said. “It became a national security issue. We believe in this model of farming that’s ecological and helps the community."

With tobacco, Castro said, "we hope to create jobs on the farm but also through the entire process, from distribution, to sales, to exports.”

Castro’s idea to expand into the tobacco business came after his brother, Antonio, 37, lost his job as a personal trainer after the storm destroyed the gym he worked at.

Francisco Castro holds young tobacco plants at HydrOrganica farm in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico on May 20, 2019.Charlotte Scott / USC Annenberg

Antonio met Walter Fernández, 39, who works at his parent’s business, Cigar House, in Old San Juan at an art event. From there, a partnership was born.

Fernandez and the Castro brothers are artists and farmers with an interest in tobacco and cigars.

In 2018, they combined their talents to found El Club del Turro, English for “Cigar Club.”

They’re in the first stages of harvesting and storing tobacco leaves, with hopes of making El Club del Turro cigars to sell.

Tobacco on the island didn’t used to be controlled by small farmers. From 1907 to 1917, tobacco was a top three cash crop along with sugar and coffee. From 1921 to 1940, tobacco was Puerto Rico’s second-leading export, according to Jorge Duany, author of “Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

That changed with industrialization, according to Maribel Martínez Delgado, who promotes the culture and history of the town of Caguas, which used to be a major producer of tobacco.

But small Puerto Rican farmers like the Castros are trying to get the tobacco industry up and running again.

'A work of love'

Tobacco plants take four months to grow on Castro’s farm. Once the leaves start to turn yellow, they’re ready to harvest.

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Castro then hangs the leaves to dry in a humidity-controlled barn for 45 days. Finally, the tobacco leaves are wrapped in palm leaves and stored in a temperature-and-humidity controlled box made of Spanish wood or a Don Q Rum barrel for a minimum of one year.

“Other leaves may be stored for more years through desired aging. More time equals better aromas, texture and taste,” Fernández said.

El Club del Turro's cigars are flavored with ingredients that Fernández and the Castro brothers keep secret.

“Francisco works with anyone who wants to work here,” Fernández said of his business partner. “It’s his lifestyle. He likes to work with a lot of people, help everyone he can help.”

To create a cigar, Fernández and the Castro brothers roll together three to five leaves. They also mix yuca powder with water to create a natural glue to seal the corners of the cigar.

Other farmers on the island produce tobacco differently.

Guillermina Rosario and Jose Gonzalez sell rolls of tobacco to vendors who turn them into cigars or chewing tobacco.Charlotte Scott / USC Annenberg

Guillermina Rosario has been growing tobacco with her husband, Jose González, on their farm in Isabela for about 30 years. The couple creates yarn-like balls of tobacco to sell to vendors, who turn them into cigars or chewing tobacco. One full-grown tobacco plant produces 36 rolls of tobacco. One yard of tobacco sells for $5 and 120 yards for $300.

“Right now, it’s an art,” said Martínez Delgado, who in addition to being the cultural promoter of Caguas, is a former employee of Puerto Rico’s Museo del Tabaco, or “Tobacco Museum,” which is all about tobacco growing and cigar making in Puerto Rico.

“Throughout the 19th century, Caguas tobacco was recognized as having the best quality, thus turning the city into an outstanding cigar-manufacturing center,” according to Museo del Tabaco.

Although Caguas no longer has tobacco factories, artisans at Museo del Tabaco come to work for four hours each day to make cigars using tobacco leaves from the Dominican Republic. They’re sold under the Museo del Tabaco label, five for $10.

Looking forward to 'made in Puerto Rico'

Importing leaves and tobacco from other countries is not uncommon. Cigars in Puerto Rico are typically imported from places like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, Fernandez said. Even the Cigar House brand is made in Nicaragua with Don Pepín García cigars.

Regardless of where the cigar is produced, Fernández said tobacco is smoked for its flavor and the experience.

“It’s like drinking good wine or eating good beef,” he said in Spanish. “This isn’t something you smoke as a vice, that you do all the time because you have to burn certain anxiety. Tobacco is about time, talking, having a conversation, learning things. Tobacco is something cultural.”

Fernández said smoking a cigar can’t be compared to smoking a cigarette or vaping.

“This is something that comes from the earth. It’s an economic thing,” he said. “This provides sovereignty to a country. This is about the agriculture.”

Walter Fernandez smokes a cigar at Cigar House in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.Charlotte Scott / USC Annenberg

In addition to selling cigars, Cigar House is a lounge. People can relax, smoke a cigar and even drink whiskey.

Antonio Armenta visits Puerto Rico twice a year for work. He travels from Córdoba, a city in the south of Spain.

He met Fernandez’s parents, Samuel Fernández and Rita Pérez, on a flight years ago. They started talking about cigars and their business, and Armenta has been visiting Cigar House ever since.

“This is a place that I love. When I am not at work, I come here,” Armenta said in Spanish as he smoked a Joya de Nicaragua cigar and sipped a Jack Daniels and Coke. “This is like my second house. I feel good here.”

Armenta said the Joya de Nicaragua cigar “is well priced and the one I love.”

“In Spain, people ask many times, ‘Which is the best wine?’ We answer, ‘The one that you like,’ because the same happens with tobacco,” he said. “The best cigar is the one you like.”

Even if Joya de Nicaragua cigars aren’t for everyone, customers come to Cigar House for their extensive selection and one of the largest humidors in the Caribbean to store them all.

While cigars imported from other parts of the world are valued in Puerto Rico, Fernández and the Castro brothers hope to change that in the near future with El Club del Turro.

Fernández said he doesn’t know how long it will take to get the brand up and running, but they’ve already taken a deep dive, with tobacco leaves drying in their barn and humidor.

The Castro brothers and Fernández plan to keep doing what they’re doing until El Club del Turro cigars become a reality.

“I’m very happy,” Francisco Castro said. “It’s a work of love.”

This story was completed as part of a collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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