The Importance of Seed Quality

Soil, climate, curing, and fermenting are all well-known formative factors in determining the quality of tobacco leaf. But don't underestimate a seedling's genes.

By Dale Scott

Last October, John Vogel, our guide for this series of tutorials and the director of Tabacos de la Cordillera, announced the launch of the company's very first branded cigar line. Vogel's key claim was simple yet startling: "We are the world's only cigar maker now growing genetically pure tobacco from 'ancestral' pre-Castro Cuban seeds," he declared. "Some go back to 1945, Cuba's Golden Age of cigars. The flavor and aroma are superior, and they are much smoother than current Havanas. They take smokers back 50 years."

What makes Vogel's claim credible? His curriculum vitae should. Though previously unknown in the marketplace, the graduate agronomist and specialist in genetics spent 20 years as an R&D project leader with the world's largest cigar company. That, plus his 20-year tobacco consulting career, garnered him commendations by the industry and the U.S. government for his research work. During his business travel to 20 countries, his associations with other tobacco researchers and leaf producers - especially from Cuban Land, Cuba's leading research organization until Castro disbanded it - resulted in him acquiring over 45 specimens of legendary pre-Embargo Cuban seeds.

Cigar smokers and, no doubt, people within the industry, have already begun to downplay Vogel's claim, saying his tobacco cannot match Castro's product, because it's not grown in Cuba. More than one online cigar forum contributor has protested, "Seeds aren't important... only the soil, climate, curing, and fermentation [are]."

Vogel counters, explaining that those factors are indeed critical in the production of fine tobacco. But, if any are sub-par, they can only degrade the quality of the tobacco from the seeds' original potential. Conversely, the best soil, climate, and leaf processing cannot improve tobacco from inferior seeds. "The foundation of premium tobacco lies in the genetic code hidden within the seeds," he says. Thus, Vogel's following exposition of the principles of seed quality may help you decide whether he knows what he's talking about. Of course, only your palate can say whether his cigars replicate the classic Havana smoking experience.

It Starts with Good Genes
The basic key ingredient to any successful tobacco production program is the use of seeds, properly adapted to growing conditions, Vogel explains. Consequently, the testing of tobacco strains with a wide diversity in their genetic background, under commercial conditions during three different growth periods, is important.

Vogel defines "quality seeds" as being certifiably genetically pure, having a high percentage of planted seeds that germinate, free from disease and disease organisms, and with proper moisture content and weight. Quality seeds ensure good germination, rapid emergence, and vigorous growth. These translate to good crop "stands" in greenhouses and fields.

"Vigor" is often implied when discussing seed quality, and growers use the terms interchangeably. Vigor is defined as those properties that determine the potential performance of seeds during germination and establishment, and is generally related to yield under varying field conditions.

Poor-quality seeds result in voids in planting rows known as "skips;" the need for excessive tinning of weak seedlings; and yield reductions due to overcrowding. For the tobacco farmer, all of these conditions diminish profitability.

Scheduling is critical in all operations involved in growing tobacco. Once established, it must be followed very closely.

The grower must maintain a high degree of sanitation at all times. This includes cleanliness of germinating trays and greenhouses, cleanliness in the fields and barns, and proper disinfection of implements and tools, even of one's shoes upon entering the greenhouse. The tobacco plants must also be handled with care to minimize disease, insect damage, and broken tobacco, all to ensure the highest production of quality leaf.

Proper storage is important to all growers but crucial to Vogel. Some of his precious seeds trace their lineage back six decades, and one must be careful to avoid physical injury during handling and storage. Unused seeds are best stored in airtight containers; high temperature and humidity are very harmful: excess seed moisture reduces shelf life.

Once planted, different seed lots sown in the same soil may act differently, under varying seedbed factors. Fluctuations in moisture, temperature, airspace between plants, etc., are the most important factors in determining final seedling emergence. Not surprisingly, large seeds frequently produce more vigorous plants and uniform stands.

Because the quality of the seedlings transplanted into the field determines the relative quality and populations in the field, importance must be given to the production of tobacco seedlings in the greenhouse's germination tray system. Proceeding beyond the seedling production, established procedures provide for the day-to-day operation in the field - of harvesting, curing, and taking down the leaves.

Uniformity in germination time (seedling emergence) alleviates "playing catch-up" within a greenhouse flat. Rapid emergence also allows earlier application of fertilizers and pesticides. Less wasted space from poor germination, and reduced labor for thinning over-seeded flats, increases production efficiency, and thus profitability.

A typical greenhouse protocol for the test planting and germinating of tobacco seeds involves the preparation of the germination medium - carefully pre-weighed coarse and fine soils, and fertilizers. Layer by layer, these are laid on a large plastic sheet on a clean, flat surface. Shoveling uniformly back and forth from one end of the sheet into a pile at the other end mixes the medium. Vogel's workers place clean trays, each with 50 rank-and-file shot glass-sized germination cups, on benches and fill them with the growing medium, carefully avoiding contamination with foreign material.

They move four trays, filled with growth medium, to a separate area and arrange them in a square. Workers weigh out .15 grams of seeds and mix them with clean sand. They sow the four trays uniformly with this sand-seed mixture, label them, and gently water them intermittently until the growth medium is soaked and the seeds are settled. The entire process is repeated for each seed type being tested.

After all trays are seeded, the greenhouse floor and areas under the benches are dusted with a carbonate pesticide, with careful attention paid to keep the dust from entering the trays themselves. Areas between greenhouses are also dusted.

The trays are sprayed with water early every day. Good ventilation and careful watering minimize disease problems. If the temperature in the greenhouse goes too high, the workers apply water to the greenhouse's 6-mil thick plastic-sheeting roof and sides until the temperature drops.

Workers keep the area clean of weeds and maintain good drainage. Likewise, they avoid planting vegetables near the greenhouses to prevent reproduction of common plant diseases.

"No Smoking" signs remind laborers not to smoke inside the greenhouses. A barrel with water and soap located outside of the greenhouse ensures that laborers won't expose the seedlings to other tobacco or to crops belonging to the same family as tobacco, such as tomato, eggplant, potato, or petunia.

After the seeds have germinated, watchful workers water the trays lightly and frequently while the plants are small. After the leaves are the size of a quarter, they water heavier and less often. In weeks, the 5"-tall seedlings are ready for transplanting in the field.

Soon, this test crop will be harvested and evaluated (see "Leaf Evaluation," Smokeshop, June, 2005), to determine if it will be the commercial crop that delivers the satisfying pleasure only found in the most choice premium tobacco.

SMOKESHOP - February, 2006