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Tobacco Farming Part 2: Where tradition and technology meet
One of the biggest keys to Perdomo and who we are is combining old world traditions with the most modern technology that’s effective. It’s not a slogan, it’s the truth. Last month, in Part 1 I wrote about why we decided to start growing our own crops, how we found the right fields, hired the most knowledgeable people, and what we did to store and cure our tobacco. In this chapter, I will describe some of the methods we use to ensure our seedling will grow into strong, healthy tobacco plants that are rich in flavor, plus ground preparation, fertilization, and planting.
Preparing the ground, once you’ve got the most fertile farmland, the soil must be prepared for growing rich and premium cigar tobacco. In the old days, you would look at the ground and say, “This soil looks really rich, so that’s where we’ll plant.” Today, we do soil analysis by taking plugs of soil from all over the farm so we can see exactly what’s in it. The ground has to be extremely fertile, yet as naturally fertile as the Nicaragua soil is, you can have a piece of ground that’s totally different from a piece of ground as little as three feet away.
Every year, before we begin to grow we have meetings with the people from Bayer who show us what new products and techniques they have to help us grow even better crops. When it comes to combating diseases, everything changes annually. Right now there’s a virus in Nicaragua that mainly attacks tomatoes, but it has done a lot of damage to tobacco.
It truncates the leaves; in other words, it won’t let them grow any more than a certain amount. It’s similar to Black Shank, but it doesn’t attack the roots, it attacks the leaves. A lot of growers have had severe damage as a result, but Bayer has a new application that combats it. It’s so effective that, in the 80’s, if you had blue mold your crops would be ravished and you’d lose them all. Today if you get blue mold, you can treat it quite easily.
One of the keys to smart tobacco farming is knowing when your crops are vulnerable to blue mold. First you look at the atmospheric conditions. If you see that the sky is a little overcast with variable winds, that means the sun is going to take a while to come out. We call those “blue mold days.” Yes, because blue mold spores travel by wind, they can attack the plants in as little as those few hours before the sun breaks through. So, you apply the Bayer product for seven days straight, and the blue mold never gets to the plant. Thinking back to the days when my Father was planting his crops, it’s amazing how things have changed. Of course, we still use a lot of traditional farming methods, but today we also rely heavily on technology.
The computer that thinks it's a tobacco plant. We have two labs we work with in Central America. As they develop new processes for analyzing soil, scientists from the laboratories will visit the farm and show us some bigger and better things we can do. With today’s technology we now have these soil analysis pods that we stick in the ground. The pods are actually tiny computers that pretend to be a tobacco plant. Each pod sits in the ground for 120 days and absorbs nutrients from the ground. After the data has been analyzed, you get a punch card that tells you exactly how much nitrogen, potassium, boron, and any other elements are in the ground, including which elements the soil absorbs. The benefit of this device is, you know exactly how many parts-per-million you need to put in your fertilizer. So if your formula is 12-12-6 and the plant is only grabbing eight parts of potassium, then four parts of potassium are being washed away in the ground. Some people will tell you it’s not a big deal, because the minerals will stay in the ground, but they won’t; they’ll just wash into the hard pan (the ground below the rich topsoil) every time, because we are going to let the ground rest and we are not going to grow tobacco again there for at least another year.
That’s also why we let our fields rest for one year before replanting. At that time the hard pan has to be broken up because it’s very rich in nutrients. Normally, about 36 inches is where you hit this very fertile hard pan, which has to be broken up with row plows. In Jalapa you hit the pan at about 24 inches. So, you have to dig somewhere between 24 and 36 inches. Depending on which valley we are growing on, we work the rich organic dirt up all the way up to some four-inch row plows, so the grounds are thoroughly prepared from the bottom all the way to the very top.
Why oxen make the best tractors. Because the grounds in Nicaragua are so rich and hard, when it’s time to dig the trenches for planting we go “old school” by using oxen instead of tractors. If you use a tractor to do it, even though it has finer teeth for digging in, tractors can weigh anywhere from 2,800 to 4,000 pounds. So what happens? Due to the weight of the tractor, the soil gets compacted down again.
The result is that when the tobacco grows between the furrows, it can’t get the nutrients it needs and also has trouble growing because the ground cannot have any compaction. It has to be sifted, so when the water comes in, it drains. On that note, we don’t apply water using sprinklers; we have tubes running on the ground. So if the soil is compacted, the water can’t get to the roots. By using a pair of oxen for sifting, between the two animals, including the yokes, you’re talking about 1,800 pounds at best, plus the sifter only has three teeth. This is how it’s been done for about 100 years. Additionally, the operator that works with the oxen is a master. He can control them with just two fingers on the rope, and they even know not to step on the plants. We have a number of oxen we keep on the farm so we can rotate them; this way they’re never overworked. A lot of people use oxen because they can’t afford a tractor, but in the end, the oxen do a much better job. This is one case in which technology takes a back seat to tradition.
Sowing the seeds of love, when you have an operation like ours, in the morning you can go either to the farm or the seedbeds. If you choose the seedbeds, you walk through the greenhouses. Each greenhouse is about 40ft wide by 120ft long. You see those little green seedlings, and they’re beautiful, and you think to yourself, one day they’ll produce some great-tasting tobacco. In order to ensure that we have strong, healthy plants, we start with the finest grade seeds. We use a seed cleaner to clean the tobacco seeds and separate them into three grades; A Grade (large), B grade (medium), and C grade (small). We only use the A grade seed as they have the best characteristics to grow strong, healthy tobacco plants.
We also use the best materials and the most modern technology when we plant these seeds. We start with a nutrient rich organic soil which is blended especially for the finest premium tobacco plants. This soil is put into our growing trays which have 96 deposits, which hold exactly 96 plants. Our seeder machine uses a vacuum system to pick up exactly 96 seeds at a time and then it places them into our growing trays. This machine is an incredible resource, giving us the precision and accuracy we need to manipulate and protect each tobacco seed. This is a fascinating and critical process as each tobacco seed is smaller than a grain of pepper.
Once each tray has been seeded, they are put into our greenhouses. Our greenhouses are built with special material to control the amount of sunlight that is filtered in as well as to protect the plants from any molds, funguses, or air born infections. We use a hi-tech watering system in our greenhouse which uses micro-processors to create a fine mist, almost a cloud, which creates the perfect environment for these seeds to germinate and develop into strong, healthy seedlings.
We monitor each plant closely and all of the plants with the same growth rate will be separated and prepared to be transplanted in to the fields. Timing is of course everything, as we have each field prepared and ready for these strong healthy seedlings. Our team does a fantastic job in coordinating our greenhouse operation with our field operations.
No margin for error, we have to be constantly aware of the climatic conditions, sicknesses, infections, over-watering, and we do our best to keep them to a minimum. The reality is, you can’t grow crops without people, and people will eventually make mistakes. For this reason alone you have to be so pinpoint accurate that every step must be done at the exact time, in a very specific manner, or the plant will die. There’s no margin for error. We utilize a laser-like approach, and because almost everything is done manually, it’s a lot of work. We have a strict calendar of work that is done daily under the strictest of guidance by team Perdomo and it's experts.
Take the furrows around our plants, for example; they’re wet, yet no water ever touches the plants, only its roots. We build these little tributaries, block them, fill them with water, then let them drain on their own. You’ll never see us directly water the plants. We have someone who makes sure that everything is done right. For example, say one plant somehow came out; he makes sure it gets put back in the ground. To me it’s beautiful being out in these fields on these 20, 30 and 40 acre farms, plus, we have a farm in Jalapa that’s about 130 sq. acres. For someone who grows corn, it may not seem like a lot of acreage, but for tobacco it’s perfect, and we’re one of the largest in Central America.
The transplanting machine from outer space. In the old days, when it was time for transplanting the seedlings in the ground, we would take a piece of wood cut to 12 inches, lay it down, and hand plant a seedling. The plants were separated by flipping that piece of wood over and over so the plants were equidistant from each other. It’s still done that way in many parts of Nicaragua, so despite all the new technology, the old things still work. However, as well as they work, the old methods often take more time, and extra time can be inefficient. Even the old manual transplanters have their drawbacks. These machines have a wheel, and the wheel has a little clip on it. The operator sits in a chair and places the plant in the clip, as the wheel turns it places the plant in the ground. The downside is the clip can often pinch the stem of the plant. If it rips the stem, it’s like getting a cut on your skin. Once it’s torn, it’s open to infection, so if that happens, or the stem is pinched too hard, you’re essentially damaging the plant before it even gets a chance to grow.
I figured, there had to be a better way. If there was a machine that could do the transplanting with virtually no harm to the plants, that would save us a lot of time, energy and can move our men to other important jobs on the farms or curing houses. So, after a little research I found a company that manufactured just such a machine. It wasn’t cheap, but man, it’s been a Godsend.
When the transplanter arrived, it came in a 40 foot container, in pieces. Like a giant erector set, you have to build it, then tractor it out to the field. It’s big, shiny and red, and the local people looked at it like it was some kind of alien spaceship. To test it we decided to use it on uncultivated virgin land. That meant we would have to clear a new field by knocking everything down ourselves. Fortunately, my Dad who also did some construction work back in the day, had some bulldozers and front-end loaders. But even they weren’t enough. We had guys with machetes cutting through the thatch. Let me tell, you, it’s a jungle out there. Special props go to our V.P, Arthur Kemper, for working with the manufacturer on this huge project!
Once the machine was built it was time to give it a test drive. It exceeded my expectations. The machine will transplant 240 plants a minute and do eight acres a day. Additionally, the machine opens up the ground, while at the same time adds water, algaecide and fertilizer, then covers it back up. Before we had the machine, you’d have to have 180 men to do the same job. With this machine you only need eight people. The other benefit is that it frees up 172 people, which means I can move them into other divisions of labor. Because there’s so much you have to do, hanging the tobacco, sorting it, stringing it, etc., having all these extra workers available saves a lot of valuable time. Instead of having them punch transplanting holes in the ground, they can be working in the curing house or on fermentation.
It’s amazing how much more efficient this machine has made us. I remember my competitors saying it couldn’t be done because the ground was too thick, but it worked. So, it can be done. Plus, you get a much more vibrant plant because it has no stress and no manipulation by human hands. You have to keep in mind that when you touch a plant, if you have bacteria on your hands, that bacteria is passed on to the plant. That’s another way blue mold and Black Shank are passed. By using the transplanting machine the technique is about as antiseptic as it gets.
As I noted earlier, it’s not all done with modern technology. We apply the older standards, as well — not only to tobacco, but to making cigars, like the traditional techniques that you learned from your family. But if new techniques can help us do things better, I’m all over it.
In my next installment, I’ll get more into the growing, aging and blending process.