Keeping Tobacco Consistent
Year after year tobacco farmers work hard to maintain a level of consistency in their tobacco. While this sounds easy, you have to remember that this is a natural product subject to changes in growing conditions and the evolution of the plants themselves over time. While there might still be some small differences year to year most consumers will not be able to tell. Here are a few strategies that tobacco farmers use to maintain consistency in their product:
Controlling Seedling growth
Tobacco seedlings are very protected at the beginning of their life. Seedlings are grown in large trays in greenhouses protected from the sun, wind, pests, and predators. After 15 days in the trays workers hand select the strongest plants for transfer to the fields.
One of the major ways that tobacco farmers maintain consistency is controlling the pollination of their plants. Pollination is how tobacco plants reproduce and form seeds. This is also how new varietals of tobacco are created. If pollen from a habano plant reach a corojo plant for example, you now will get an entirely new hybrid of tobacco. Farmers take a few steps in order to do this.
Topping Plants - A majority of the plants on a farm will have the flowers removed during the early stages of growth. This both cuts down on the possibility for cross pollination and also allows the plant to direct their nutrients into the leaves of the plant. This causes increased yield and more robust leaves.
Netting Flowers - Tobacco farmers place bags over the few plants that they allow to flower. This helps both protect from unwanted pollination and also prevents the seeds from being eaten by birds.
Pest Traps - Tobacco farmers set up traps along the edge of their fields for pollinators and pests (butterflies and other insects).
Controlling Nutrient Content
Soil Samples - Farmers take soil samples several times a year. This helps them understand the nutrients the soil contains. While some nutrients are added via irrigation (see more below) other times tobacco farmers can grow other crops to add different nutrients back into the soil.
Irrigation - Irrigation allows the farmer to mitigate some of the discrepancies in rainfall year to year. If a dry spell or hot spell happens farmers can keep the tobacco plants watered. It also allows them to add nutrients to the soil to keep the plants fed.
Controlling Seed Quality
The final fall back tobacco farmers use to maintain consistency is keeping a store of seeds from previous generations. If a blender detects that there has been a change in the taste of the tobacco, the seeds from that year will not be planted. Instead, they will go back into their seed storage and instead use seeds from the original generation. This does not happen often (Christian Eiroa said its only happened 2 times in the last 25 years) but it is important to keep a back up just in case.
Controlling Leaf Quality
The end goal of any tobacco farmer is to grow wrapper quality tobacco, as this commands the highest price point. However, tobacco leaves can be damaged easily by wind, sun etc. This damage results in it instead being used as binder or filler tobacco instead. In order to minimize damage, Tobacco farmers use netting to both as overhead shade and on the edge of the fields to minimize wind in the fields. Some farmers even tie certain varietals to the overhead netting to ensure the plants stay safe. Also, while working the fields workers also take great lengths to avoid damaging the plants when walking in the field. Any small imperfections in leaf quality will prevent it as being used as wrapper.