Tobacco growers in Cuba's Pinar del Rio hope U.S. embargo is lifted

Farmer says tobacco farm's quality relies on faithfulness to ancient tradition

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba – Like his father and grandfather, Jose Manuel Junco grew up working in the world's most revered tobacco land. He devotes his life to the rich red soil of the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio, the island's westernmost 4,200 square miles.

About a two-hour drive west of Havana, near the remote town of Viñales, Junco supervises a small farm. Everything is done by hand, from the planting of the seeds to the selection of leaves for the cigar. Nothing goes to waste.

Junco, 62, walked into a rustic warehouse, known as the "casa de tabaco" or curing barn. Like an oak barrel to age wine, he said the house is where the fermentation process happens.

"This is where they are working on selection," Junco said, while pointing to women sitting at a small wooden table. "Part of the process is separating the leaves."

The province produces about 70 percent of the island's tobacco, according to officials. The farm's remote wooden warehouse can store three to four tons of tobacco at a time, even when they produce up to 46 tons, Junco said.

Last year, Cubans exported about 142 million high quality cigars known as "puros" and reported about $20 million in earnings. Among the brands of cigars that Cuba exports are the Cohiba, Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta.

THIS SEASON: To counter the effects of the drought that is expected in January and February, this year's planting season began in October. Cuba is expected to produce about 27,000 tons during the 2015-2016 season,  according to officials.

For about three decades, Junco has been a member of a worker cooperative, a social enterprise that works like a multi-stakeholder association but remains under government control. The system was implemented in 1959. The government owns the land, buys production and offers credit to cover costs.

The local cooperatives are members of national associations and unions, such as the trade union council of agricultural and forestry workers. The Cuban National Association of Small Farmers estimates Pinar del Rio has about 36,900 members.

CUBA-U.S. RELATIONS: A Cuban official told reporters in October that the Cuban government estimates the U.S. embargo has caused the agricultural sector at least $450 million in damages.

At the farm, Junco said he hopes that when and if the U.S. embargo is lifted, his cooperative can lower production costs with access to fertilizers and machines.

They would not only use the equipment to grow tobacco, but on the off season, they also grow vegetables and grains. His family, he said, relies on the land. It's how they have survived for generations and how they survive today.