When “Florida Shade” Was The Rage
With an eye toward fall planting, I started browsing for tobacco seeds. I stumbled across a strain called Florida Sumatra, which is described as a shade wrapper, though it is suitable for binder or filler as well. Wrapper leaf? Grown in Florida? Hmm. Off to “the Google”…
After following a few fascinating links, I had an entirely new picture of the Florida cigar industry.
My understanding of Florida cigar history was limited to the production side in the Tampa area. What I didn’t know was that Gadsden County, Florida was, at the turn of the 20th century, the primary and original producer of shade grown wrapper leaf.
What about Connecticut? Posers. According to this article, they didn’t grow their first shade leaf until Quincy, FL tobacco growers had blazed a decade-long trail for them.
The first experiments in Florida shade grown wrapper began in 1896, after a farmer noticed that plants growing in tree shade yielded superior leaf to those in full sun. They were grown from Sumatra seed, which was at the time considered most desirable for wrappers. The plants were grown under wooden slats to provide partial shade. Success was immediate, and the first harvests of shade grown Sumatra sold for up to ten times more per pound than the sungrown variety.
Before long, the Florida-grown Sumatra was deemed superior to the Sumatra-grown version. At the Paris Exhibition of 1900, FL Sumatra received “20 points of merit” compared to 18 for the Sumatra-grown. By 1920, 10,000 acres were under plant yielding an estimated 10 million pounds of high grade leaf.
The fortunes of northwest Florida’s tobacco farmers rose and fell over ensuing decades due to overproduction, government agricultural policy, and finally because of foreign competition. The death blow, according to an old Cigar Aficionado article, came in summer of 1975 when the International Trade Commission refused to place a tariff on foreign shade leaf. The last of Florida’s tobacco men turned to fruit and vegetables, and that was that.
Now, armed with a little new knowledge and $2.75 worth of Florida Sumatra heirloom seeds, I look forward to my first foray into shade wrapper.
And one of these days I’ll pack a camera and drive north to Quincy and Havana, FL in search of some old-school tobacco culture.