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Clermont Tobacco Farmer Keeping Piece Of Florida History Alive

When people think of Florida crops they think: citrus. But Florida also has a long history with tobacco. One central Florida tobacco farmer is keeping that tradition alive.

It’s a hot, sweltering day in May at Jeff Borysiewicz’s 20-acre tobacco farm in Clermont. A handful of day laborers eat lunch on a wooden picnic table, and dogs mill about just a few paces from rows and rows of big, bright green leafy tobacco plants.

Rows of sweet corn are used as a decoy.“That’s like a magnet where the bugs just love that, so we check that corn if it’s getting eaten up, we need to spray," said Borysiewicz.

Workers walk through the fields, going through what’s called the first priming. "When you harvest tobacco, you start from the bottom of the plant and work your way up. You see the workers in the field that are literally pulling the bottom leaves; we put them in the plastic bins.”

Tobacco farming requires a lot of human labor even with all of the tools farmers have including tractors and irrigation systems. Workers start prepping the fields in January, they plant in March and then from May to June they’re busy harvesting. And then-- the art of tobacco growing really gets started.

Long brown fold out tables line Borysiewicz's vast, dark wooden tobacco barn. A week’s worth of harvested tobacco leaves hang overhead. He sows the large leaves onto a thin, long white string with a Swiss machine from the 1950s. “What this machine does too is it spaces them out perfectly on a string because if they’re too close they won’t dry right," Borysiewicz said.

The finished strings hang on wooden pallets where the live green leaves will die slowly in a carefully controlled process.

“We keep it 80 percent humidity in here at first so this way it will start turning from bright green to that yellowish color...Eventually this whole leaf will turn brown and the stem will shrink down and that’s when your tobacco's cured.”

Once the leaves are cured they’re shipped to factories in Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic where the cigars are made, then reimported and sold. What Borysiewicz gets back will be blended with tobacco from other regions to come up with different flavors. Cigar makers are like chefs mixing different ingredients.

To be a cigar maker takes patience.

“We haven’t even gotten the first cigars from our 2013 crop; this is a long term investment, a long term project, so that’s why I say on a business side it’s not probably the best move," said Borysiewicz.

He has a quarter million dollars per season tied up in this venture–mostly in labor costs. Tobacco farming overseas is less risky, labor there is cheaper. Borysiewicz is at a disadvantage. So why does he do this? He says part of him wants to bring something historic back.

“I started this venture more of just a passion of cigars and a passion for tobacco and actually people told me I was crazy and couldn’t do it and as an entrepreneur that makes me want to do it more,” Borysiewicz said.

He’s primarily known for his retail Corona Cigar shops in central Florida where cigar lovers pay anywhere from $2 to hundreds of dollars for the finest cigars.

Borysiewicz’s Clermont tobacco farm is one of the last of its kind. The Florida Department of Agriculture reports in 2012 there were ten tobacco farms in Florida totaling 482 acres.

“I know in 1925 there were five-thousand acres under cultivation of tobacco in Florida, so Florida was never a huge player in the tobacco industry," said Connie Lester, editor of Florida Historical Quarterly.

She said while Florida was never a big tobacco producer compared to other states in the south, it was an important player because of the kind of tobacco it grew.

“Florida generally produced tobacco for cigars especially after the Civil War because you had people migrating from Cuba for various reasons who were familiar with cigar manufacturing so it was a logical kind of crop for Florida farmers,” said Lester.

Cuban cigars. The forbidden fruit. Expect to see more Cuba cigars in central Florida as more people travel between Orlando and Havana. Travelers are allowed to bring back a $100 worth of tobacco products.

Borysiewicz doesn’t see this as competition, in fact he welcomes the change. Remember, he’s primarily a cigar retailer.“So we’re selling cigars from Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, those are your three most popular countries that produce handmade cigars, so if the embargo were to end we’d also add Cuban cigars to the selection.”

As long as the embargo is in place, he can dream on. He looks forward to the day when he can legally sell Cuban cigars and take that money from the black market. “Tons of counterfeit Cuban cigars, you go to Miami or if you go to Southern California, or even just go on a cruise in the Bahamas or the Caribbean, people are trying to sell fake Cohibas all over the place,” said Borysiewicz.

This year’s crop in Clermont just finished curing. Borysiewicz just got to smoke some test blends from his first crop and he says they’re fantastic! But these cigars, with a blend of Florida Sun Grown tobacco, are still several months away from being sold in Corona Cigar shops. As Borysiewicz reminds us, crafting premium cigars is a slow process, that takes patience… but that is exactly what makes excellent cigars so special.