by Raul Menchaca
PINAR DEL RiO, Cuba, July 30 (Xinhua) -- Pinar del Rio, Cuba's westernmost province and known for the country's best tobacco, is in full harvest mode for the next few weeks.
Vice President Jose Ramon Machado has called for the province to have harvested 17,000 tonnes by the end of July, which would make 2017 among the best years in a decade for the crop. Cigar exports bring in around 450 million U.S. dollars a year to the Caribbean nation.
"Next year must be even better," Machado said at the beginning of July while touring several tobacco plants in Pinar del Rio.
Local media reports that tobacco farmers are planning to plant 18,700 hectares for the 2017-2018 season, 700 more than the previous one.
A particular focus is given to the so-called "Tobacco Triangle," made up by the municipalities of Consolacion del Sur, Pinar del Rio, San Juan and Martinez and San Luis, which jointly compromise the area known as Vueltabajo.
In Vueltabajo, several thousand hectares with a number of tobacco varieties are planted every year, from which are extracted 65 percent of the best leaves used to make Habano cigars, Cuba's fourth largest export category, after biotech products, nickel and sugar.
Now tobacco farmers are preparing the soil, selecting the best areas for seeding, and expanding their capacity to cure the leaf. About 30 pumping stations have been installed and electrified while dozens of wells are being drilled to ensure enough water despite the drought impacting the island.
Since 2010, Vueltabajo has shown a systematic increase in the growth of planted areas, matching Cuba's economic needs and development projections.
The area will see five varieties of the plant in 2017-2018 season, considered more resistant to disease and with greater yields.
Last week, a new tobacco processing plant was opened in Las Ovas, a few kilometers east from the provincial capital.
Located in what was a large abandoned warehouse at the entrance of the city, the installation seeks to prepare and classify all the leaves to be used in cigars, which are made for export.
Francisco Gonzalez, director of the state-run Pinar del Rio Tobacco Company, explained that the creation of this center is part of a strategy to consolidate tobacco-related activities formerly carried out across a number of facilities.
"Thus, the raw material will reach the factories already classified and prepared, and the factories will only have to roll the cigars and finish the production," said the sector official.
The Premium cigars are marketed by Habanos S.A., a joint venture between the state-owned Cubatabaco and Altadis, a Franco-German subsidiary of the British multinational Imperial Tobacco.
Unable to sell in the U.S. due to the embargo imposed on the island, Habanos S.A. has still cornered 70 percent of the global cigars market, estimated at about 400 million units.