After unusual weather, Cuba struggles to save prized tobacco crop
By Marc Frank
SAN JUAN Y MARTINEZ, Cuba Jan 28 (Reuters) - Highly unusual weather has damaged Cuba's tobacco crop, raising concerns among farmers and cigar-lovers that the island's supply of its famous cigars might suffer at a time of increased demand resulting from detente with the United States.
The weather phenomena El Niño led to Cuba's worst drought in a century in 2015, followed by heavy rain during the northern winter, which is normally a dry period in Cuba.
While all Cuban crops have suffered, delicate tobacco plants are especially vulnerable. Rains have wiped out production at some plantations and severely damaged others. In response, tobacco farmers are replanting now, out of season, in hopes of salvaging the 2015-2016 harvest.
In western Pinar del Rio province, where most of Cuba's tobacco is grown, farmers are slogging through rain and mud to replant destroyed crops. The best Cuban tobacco is cultivated from late October into early January and then harvested into March.
"This has been a disaster, not just for us, but everyone," Juan Hernandez said as he steered his oxen-pulled plow through rain and a field of mud where tobacco plants once stood. "We are trying to see if we can still have a harvest."
Down the road, 60-year-old farmer Andres Chirino picked damaged leaves from plants and scowled.
"I have been growing tobacco since I was born and this is the worst harvest in my experience," he said. "Look at those stains and rot on the leaves. The quality is bad so we will earn much less."
The impact on cigar supply has yet to be determined, as tobacco normally requires at least two or three years of curing, fermenting and ageing. Farmers and cigar experts say there have been several weak harvests in recent years, inconveniently occurring just as tourism in Cuba is booming. Continuación...