The tobacco plant is in the same botanical family as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants. An adaptive species, it can be grown economically from 50° northern to 40° southern latitude.
More than 100 countries grow tobacco. China grows the most, followed by Brazil, India, USA, Zimbabwe and Turkey. Tobacco thrives in poorer soils, providing farmers with a welcome alternative crop. In many cases, it provides a higher income than any other crop. It integrates well into environmentally friendly crop rotations, benefiting subsequent crops like maize.
Virginia tobacco is named after the US state where it was first cultivated. It is also called 'bright tobacco' because of its yellow to orange colour, achieved during flue-curing. It grows particularly well in subtropical regions with light rainfall, such as Georgia (USA), southern Brazil and Zimbabwe. Classic English brands like Benson & Hedges and Dunhill use mainly Virginia tobacco.
Burley is a slightly lighter shade of green than Virginia. After being air-cured, the tobacco turns brown with virtually no sugars left in the leaf, giving it an almost cigar-like taste. It needs heavier soils and more fertiliser than Virginia. The best Burley is grown in the USA, Central America, Malawi and Uganda. Combined with Virginia and Oriental tobacco, it makes up an American Blend, as used in brands like Lucky Strike or Pall Mall.
Oriental is the smallest and hardiest type, grown in the hot summer of the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East. These conditions and a high planting density create an aromatic flavour, enhanced by sun-curing, as in a traditional Turkish cigarette.
There are around 12,000 tobacco seeds in a gram – it looks rather like powdery instant coffee. The seeds are so small that they have to be nurtured in specially protected seedbeds for 60 days before transplanting to the field. After a couple of weeks, soil is banked up around the seedlings for protection and to let them develop a good root system. Two months later, the flowers and some of the upper leaves are ‘topped’ to concentrate growth in the remaining leaves, like ‘pinching out’ tomatoes. As the plants grow, the farmer provides appropriate nutrition and watches out for pests.
In a few countries, the crop is mechanically harvested, but more typically the farmer will harvest by hand over two to four months, taking off two to four leaves per plant as they ripen. A typical farmer in Uganda, for example, with two to three hectares of land, will harvest about 15,000 plants of 22 leaves each. These can earn a good income from only a small area of land. We can help by providing seeds, fertiliser and advice on planting, growing, harvesting and curing tobacco and other crops.
Curing is a carefully controlled process used to achieve the texture, colour and overall quality of a specific tobacco type.
During the cure, leaf starch is converted into sugar, and the tobacco changes colour from green to lemon, to yellow, to orange to brown, like tree leaves in autumn.
There are four main curing methods:
Air-curing: Air-cured tobacco, such as Burley, is hung in unheated, ventilated barns to dry naturally until the leaf reaches a light to medium brown colour. At this point, there are virtually no sugars left in the leaf.
Flue-curing: Heat is introduced into a barn via pipes from an exterior furnace, like radiators connected to the central heating system. This controlled heat allows the leaves to turn yellow/orange, at which point they are fixed, containing a high amount of sugar. Virginia tobacco is flue-cured.
Sun-curing: Leaves are strung out on racks and exposed to the sun for 12 to 30 days. The sun's direct heat fixes the leaves at a yellow to orange colour with a high sugar content. Oriental is the most prominent of the sun-cured tobaccos.
Fire-curing: Fire-curing follows the same principle as producing smoked ham. Brushwood is burned under the leaves, drying the tobacco and producing a smoky fragrance. This is mainly used in pipe tobaccos or Fine Cut.
After curing, the farmer grades the leaves into different leaf positions, qualities and colours, packs them into 30-50kg ‘farmer bales’ and takes them to a buying centre or auction for sale.
After curing, the leaf is processed through a green leaf threshing plant. During threshing, the lamina is separated from the stem and subjected to a series of quality checks to ensure all sand, dust, scraps and foreign matter are removed. During processing, the moisture in the tobacco is brought down to a safe ‘keeping’ level and the processed tobacco is packed into 200kg cardboard boxes for shipping to manufacturing sites.