| SAN JUAN Y MARTINEZ, Cuba
SAN JUAN Y MARTINEZ, Cuba The world's premier tobacco region in western Cuba has recovered from two powerful hurricanes in 2008 and is about to produce one of the best crops in years, growers said on Tuesday.
Lush green fields of the leafy plant stood ready for harvest in the island's Vuelta Abajo region of Pinar del Rio province, a sacred place for cigar smokers around the globe.
Curing barns were filled to the roof with leaves that have already been picked.
"The tobacco has a lot of oil, and it's good size. The more oil you have, the more flavor," said planter Leonardo Moreno.
"You can see it even from the road, how beautiful it looks. It is very high quality," said another grower, Franciso Milian, standing amid rows of tobacco plants on the finca that has been in his family for decades.
The growers spoke during a government-organized press trip to Pinar del Rio during Cuba's annual cigar festival.
Growers credit an unusually cool, dry winter for the crop, but Milian said it is the dark, dusty soil of Vuelta Abajo that gives the tobacco the aroma and flavor that cigar aficionados consider the world's finest.
"To produce the best tobacco in the world you have got to have the soil that we have here," he said.
The region is in a broad valley, with mountains in the distance overlooking land that was once heavily forested with pine trees.
Three hurricanes did $10 billion in damage to Cuba in 2008, putting a dent in its economy that has been exacerbated by the global financial crisis.
Two of the hurricanes hit Pinar del Rio hard in late August and early September, the effects of which can still be seen in patched up buildings and temporary roofs held down by rocks.
About 5,000 curing barns were damaged or destroyed. Most have been repaired, but some still sit unused, with gaping holes caused by the powerful winds.
Growers said they had completed most of the season's harvest before the storms hit. The Cuban government moved quickly to help them transport leaves drying in the curing barns to more secure warehouses, they said.
As much as 2 million pounds of tobacco, or about 5 percent of Cuba's annual production, were destroyed, but Manuel Garcia, vice president of Cuban cigar distributor Habanos S.A., said on Monday the losses had no major effect on supply.
Sales of Cuban cigars, one of Cuba's top exports, fell 3 percent to $390 million in 2008 as demand was cut by the world recession and more countries adopted anti-smoking laws, Garcia said.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Todd Eastham)