As he walked across his two-acre Orient farm Monday, Michael Chuisano clasped a shiny green leaf and stretched it out with both hands to show off its 10-inch width.
He was holding a broadleaf, one of the most sought-after tobacco leaves used for wrapping cigars. When it comes time for him to bring in his crop in the next few weeks, it will mark the first time in centuries tobacco has been harvested in Southold Town, he said. Amy Folk, collections manager at the Southold and Oysterponds historical societies said she believes the crop has not been grown in town since the American Revolution.
“The crop is excellent because of the summer we’ve had,” said Mr. Chuisano, of Orient Point. “Even in Cuba, they cannot replicate what the soils give us here.”
The idea of growing tobacco came to Mr. Chuisano, 57, after he read an article in the New York Times a few years ago describing the creation of a fine cigar, from seed to smoke.
He learned that the highly sought-after commodity was being grown right across Long Island Sound in the Connecticut River Valley. The crop grows so well in Connecticut that a September 2013 article in Cigar Aficionado called the region’s broadleaf “dark and rugged, earthy and sweet,” noting its use by premium cigar makers from all over the world.
“I said to myself, ‘Why is no one doing this here?’ ” Mr. Chuisano said.
Depending on the quality of each individual leaf, broadleaf tobacco can be used to make up any part of a cigar. It can be filler, a binding leaf to keep the filler together or the wrapping leaf.
Mr. Chuisano said his goal is to harvest mostly wrapping leaves, which have the highest market value, at between $7 and $9 a pound.
A Brooklyn businessman at heart, Mr. Chuisano is a former owner of the LaFayette Mirror and Glass Company, which was founded in 1899. He retired at age 54, looking to explore the tobacco industry and learn the tricks of the trade.
“It’s a wild process,” Mr. Chuisano said. “The more I learned, the more passionate I became.”
That process started in April, when he grew seedlings in a greenhouse until they were about five to six inches tall. Then it was time to transfer them to the fields.
Using a special irrigation process and a beat-up planting tractor he bought from a farm in Virginia and retrofitted, he was joined by his wife, Denise, and a number of family members who helped him get the tiny plants into the ground on the land he leases on Main Road in Orient Point.
After harvest in September, the plants — all 13,000 of them — will be cut at the stem and hung upside down to dry in a number of greenhouses outfitted with windows and doors to provide just the right amount of airflow.
Too much humidity or moisture could produce mold at any time during the growing and drying process, Mr. Chuisano explained, adding that insects are also a threat and can ruin the crop entirely.
“Any slight change in the plant’s appearance needs to be dealt with immediately,” he said. “I am here on a daily basis inspecting the plants.”
Plants will hang to dry for eight weeks before they are gathered into 30-pound bales and finally sold and shipped to cigar producers around the world.
Once shipped, the leaves are left to ferment naturally for anywhere from one to five years, which Mr. Chuisano says enhances flavor while helping to remove most of the ammonia, nicotine and tar present in the leaves.
Once fermented, the leaves are used to produce premium and fine cigars, he said.
Mr. Chuisano said he believes he is the only tobacco grower on Long Island and is finding it challenging because he has no other farms to compare his growing practice to.
To learn how to care for the plants, he’s spent the past four years volunteering at tobacco farms in Connecticut and Massachusetts in exchange for an education of the industry.
That’s not to say Long Island has never had its own tobacco industry, however. In his research, Mr. Chuisano came across a Newsday article confirming that tobacco farming was once common practice on Long Island, and learned that the cash crop had been grown by the Dutch in the mid-1600s, with some East End growers continuing to grow it for personal use until the mid-1900s.
“Long Island tobacco was so highly prized it [once] cost one and a half times as much as Virginia tobacco,” the Newsday article stated.
The last reported attempt at growing tobacco in the area was by Rob Pelis and Dave Fink of Calverton, who had a small operation of about 200 of the same broadleaf tobacco plants in 1998. At the time, the then-19-year-old Mr. Pelis called it “the hardest thing I’ve ever grown.”
In later interviews, Mr. Pelis said the maintenance and upkeep necessary for growing the crop kept it from being a real money-making venture.
Because of health concerns associated with smoking, Mr. Chuisano said he understands why some folks may be skeptical of his craft.
“The health issue to me is major,” he said. “[This tobacco] is not meant to be abused. Cigar smoking is a leisurely thing, it’s almost like a fine wine — it’s meant to be savored and enjoyed.” He also noted that the type of tobacco he’s growing is not used for making cigarettes. Mr. Chuisano said he would “absolutely” like to see other growers become interested in the crop, noting that “it will add to the diversity of agriculture on the North Fork.”
“I’m sure some eyebrows were raised when they talked about planting grapes out here decades ago,” he said. “It’s very unique and if it catches on, that would be great.”
He said he would one day like to see the creation of a truly North Fork cigar, and should he find success growing out here, he’d be glad to make it happen.
“When I’m sitting on the [Long Island] Sound, smoking a cigar, it’s the most peaceful thing in the world,” he said.