There are two ways to harvest tobacco when it is ripe. Either leaf by leaf (starting from the foot and picking up 2 or 3 leaves every 2 or 3 days) or by stalk (cutting the plant at once). In the first case, each leave is supposed to be picked up at the right ripeness. In the second case, the tobacco is harvested at an average ripeness condition, that means over-ripe for bottom leaves and under-ripe for top leaves. As far as wrappers are concerned, the leaf-by-leaf picking is the rule!
Ripeness comes first on bottom leaves and goes up day after day. As soon as the green color of the foot leaves starts becoming a light pale, it is time to pick up without delay. If you wait too long, color turns fast to yellow and it is too late : tobacco will come out thin like cigarette paper, with a very sharp taste. Comparatively, because they are thicker, top leaves take longer to ripe. Very often, the farmer has to stop harvesting a few days after having picked the upper middle leaves, just to let the top leaves reach the proper ripeness. A just-in-time harvesting is very important for cigar tobaccos in general and particularly for wrappers.
Favoring Leaf Growth
The leaves are the useful part of the tobacco plant. The leaves must be processed in order to remove the greedy and useless parts of the plant: buds coming at the petiole of the leaves and blossoms. The more buds and blossoms are removed, the more nutrients go the leaves which in turn can become very large and thick. For some types of wrapper tobaccos, blossoms are not cut so leaves can stay thin. For some types of fillers, buds are removed and the stalk is cut above the 12th leaf. The leaves grow to 25 inches and up and are thick like leather.
In order to ease the feeding and the development of the plants in the tobacco fields, the lower leaves, which are useless, are picked out. Then the grower earths up the plants and new roots are going to grow in place of the removed leaves. Earthing up also helps the plant to stand and to resist better to strong winds.
Tobacco industry requires leaves with a specific texture and size. To reach their goal, the grower uses some techniques. One is to play with the density: number of plants per acre. The more plants per acre, smaller and thinner the leaves will be. Another one is to top the plants: less leaves on a stalk, make larger and thicker the leaves. That is easy to understand: for a given amount of nutrients, less mouths you have to feed, the more everyone is going to eat. In fact in each growing area, and for a type of tobacco, standards are settled for density and topping.
After the Harvest
Tobacco is a fast-growing plant that needs a lot of nutrition to develop properly. Even when fertilizers are used, the soil is impoverished. It is often impossible to yield tobacco crops on the same land for two consecutive years so farmers must rotate, intercalating regenerative cultivation.