“You know why I only won two?” he asks rhetorically, ready to deliver the nostalgic brag about his teenage tractor dominance. “I was too good. They didn’t let me compete anymore.”
We’ve made a lot of road trips from Miami to Orlando to see Jeff. He’s always interesting, always humble, always ready to tell you something you didn’t already know. He speaks in semi-hushed tones, pausing often to make sure he’s doing a good job and you’re grasping everything he’s says. This time, something’s different. Jeff isn’t just engaged; he is excited.
Really, really excited.
These days, when Jeff’s in the tractor, he’s not collecting trophies. He’s growing tobacco. That’s right; Orlando’s top tobacconist now has a foot at each extreme of the cigar lifecycle: one in retail space and the other at his 20-acre farm in Clermont, Fla., where he’s running Florida’s first premium cigar tobacco harvests in nearly four decades.
“There are states that have cigar shops, but almost every state used to have cigar factories,” he said. “Believe it or not, there are quite a few states that used to grow cigar tobacco. Florida was one of those. Florida grew cigar tobacco from the 1800s to the last crop, which was in 1977. I always knew there was cigar tobacco grown in Florida, but I didn’t realize how big it was. [Florida] was actually the second largest producer after Connecticut. What I found even more amazing was that Florida was the first to grow shade. So when you hear about Connecticut shade, it was actually started in Florida. Then they implemented it up in Connecticut.”
He knew he wanted to reverse the trend that he, like the rest of us, has seen in places like Tampa, where rich cigar history has been relegated to just that — history. He notes that as you drive through Tampa, many of the buildings seem to serve as “tombstones” for the factories that once operated there. For instance, there’s the Ybor factory building, which has historical significance not only for Tampa and the cigar world, but for the Cuban revolution, as it has connections to Cuban national hero José Martí’s time in exile.
That building now belongs to the Church of Scientology. Unfortunately, cigars don’t appear to play much of a role in Dianetics.
“I thought it would be really cool if, in a small way, we could resurrect Florida cigar tobacco,” Jeff said. “So I started doing my homework.”
Jeff, who had also been a member of the Future Farmers of America (a national organization for middle and high school students) as a kid, has long been passionate about agriculture. In fact, while you can’t yet buy cigars with his tobacco in them yet, Corona Cigar customers are already benefitting from Jeff’s green thumb. His might be the only shop in the country with a “Watermelon Wednesdays” special. If you spend $25 on cigars, you’ll also go home with a free watermelon grown right alongside the tobacco.
Fusing his longtime passions, he took to the business of learning all he could about tobacco, how to grow it and its history in Florida.
“Agriculture and farming were always passions of mine. When I was 15 years old, one of the jobs I had was working in a commercial citrus grove. But I couldn’t afford to become a farmer, because you can’t become a farmer unless you have land. Unless your dad had it and died and passed it on, you’ve got to buy it. Land’s not cheap.”
During his successful career in premium cigars, Jeff was drawn more to farms than factories. Finally in the position to own the land he needed to join the world of tobacco growers, he now has tobacco growing on 10 of his farm’s 20 acres (which he acquired in 2012).
Of course, being one of the country’s top cigar retailers also put him in the position to pick some of the brains of the leaders in cigar tobacco. “I have a good network of people who know what they’re doing,” Jeff said. “I talked to Eduardo Fernandez. He was supportive. He was like, ‘Here are the seeds. Try it out.’ And then once we started growing I went up to Connecticut and met a few farmers up there. So we have a pretty good network of agronomists and farmers that grow tobacco — whether it’s in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Connecticut or even Kentucky.”
Still, Jeff is trying to do what nobody else has in his generation. When you’re doing something this different, the playbook can’t be the same. And everyone who’s been there and done that in Florida is either dead or decades removed from the business. There have been challenges on practically every front, so Jeff and others involved in the project are updating and revising Florida’s premium cigar tobacco playbook as they confront even routine issues. For example, the pests and diseases in Florida aren’t quite the same ones that other tobacco growers contend with. Jeff’s farm has a barrier of tall sugarcane around it (among other measures) to keep grasshoppers out.
“The biggest problem we have in America is the cost of labor. That’s not just a problem with tobacco. That’s with everything in agriculture. America is great when it comes to mechanized agriculture. That’s why we’re the leader when it comes to growing corn and grains. But when it comes to fruits and vegetables, that’s why we have such a hard time. What it costs for a farm laborer in Nicaragua (to work one day) there — it’s one hour’s pay for us,” said Jeff, adding that harvesting tobacco adds layers of complication, since there’s more opportunity for error and loss in the curing barns.
Despite that complication, a visit to the Clermont farm at the end of a workday gives you a look into a small but vibrant operation. Workers seem happy with the job and appreciate what Jeff — who is here frequently and has made it a point to get his hands dirty — is trying to accomplish. They even ask for more of the cigars that Jeff is handing out; you don’t tend to see that kind of interest in cigars among the staff at many foreign farms and factories.
After having given Criollo tobacco a shot with his inaugural crop, Jeff currently growing nothing but Corojo 99, which he says is more expensive to grow since it offers a smaller per-acre yield than Criollo.
“We’re sticking with what customers see more value in. If we were trying to do yield, we would grow Habano 2000. But that’s not what this is about,” he said, putting a flame to a single cured leaf he’s pulled from the barn to demonstrate what he describes as the cigar’s suede aroma. I hold the leaf in one hand (the other holds some fresh corn I’m snacking on after pulling it right off the stalk next to the tobacco plants) as we walk up and down the field. It burns slowly, steadily, and evenly until there is nothing left of it.