Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by Kyle Rothenborg
Les Drent is happy. The plants on these two acres at the back of Kapa‘a are nearly as tall as he is, and he’s pretty tall. Like a kid at the edge of a swimming pool, he can’t resist: He wades into the field and brushes the foliage tenderly, unconcerned that tobacco deposits a gummy, odorous residue on whatever it touches.
“Unbelievable,” he says, shoulder deep in a verdant sea. “This stuff is gold. This is gold right here.” Kaua‘i’s lush valleys can often be too wet for decent tobacco, but a fortuitous mix of sun and rain, of hot, humid days and cool nights, has made the 2011 harvest—Drent’s seventh—his most productive. “This tobacco here is even more beautiful than the tobacco you see from Cuba,” he says. “Gorgeous!” He’s not just blowing smoke: The ligero—the leaves from the top of the plant used for a cigar’s filler, which are usually the smallest — are the size of turkey platters. Drent’s confident that the premium cigars the ligero is destined to be rolled into will be the Kaua‘i Cigar Co.’s best yet. But it’s a long journey from stem to stogey, one that will take this tobacco from Kapa‘a to Central America and back.
He tugs at one of the aromatic leaves. “When it’s ready to be picked, it snaps right off,” he says. It’s clearly ready; the leaf practically jumps into his hand. By tomorrow afternoon all this tobacco, about 3,500 pounds by Drent’s reckoning, will be harvested, strung leaf by leaf and hung in curing barns to dry. It’ll stay there for about forty-five days, turning from green to gold to toasty brown, after which it’ll be baled and shipped to Nicaragua, where it will be fermented, sorted, blended, rolled, banded and boxed. The first stick won’t be on the shelves of Island stores until 2013—two and a half years after the initial planting.
“Isn’t that crazy?” asks Drent. “For a small businessman, the money you have to front with this whole thing … it’s just crazy to do this.” But Drent, like a lot of successful type-As, is a little bit crazy. The New Hampshire native is, in the best patrician New England tradition, at once a gentleman farmer, a craftsman, a perfectionist, a do-it-yourselfer, a rebel and something of a masochist (evidenced as much by his unwavering devotion to the Boston Red Sox as his quixotic effort to make cigars). It’s taken him seven years to get the Kaua‘i Cigar Co. to this point, with along the way. Once finished, though, the cigars that come out of this field will be unique: These two acres are, for now, the only farm in the Islands producing commercial tobacco, and Les Drent is the only farmer crazy enough to try making cigars out of it.