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Leaves Of Gold

Sulphur, Ky., tobacco farmer finds
lucrative market in cigars

Ben Fronczek
Staff Writer


(January 2002) SULPHUR, Ky. – While many Kentuckiana tobacco farmers raise and sell their crops through the auction or contract system, Mark Barrow is not among them. Barrow is able to avoid the auctions, contractors and quotas.

Mark Barrow

Mark Barrow

He grows the tobacco on his 50-acre farm that lies on the border of Henry and Trimble counties. His tobacco is then shipped to the Caribbean to be hand-wrapped and then shipped back to U.S. distributors en route to area stores. Barrow dabbles in cigars and has thrived on the success of free enterprise with his company, Barr Limited.
A longtime smoker of cigars from his days in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Barrow searched for cigars made with Kentucky-grown tobacco. He didn’t find any.
“I think Kentucky’s heritage is tobacco, bourbon and fast horses, and I want to keep all three of them going,” said Barrow, 44.
His father works with race horses as a former jockey at Churchill Downs. Barrow himself is a collector of fine and well-aged bourbons and will have a shot now and then of a domestic brand. But as for home-grown cigar tobacco, this is a crop he has revolutionized in the state.
In the mid-1990s, Barrow found a seed for quality cigar tobacco cultivated in Connecticut. Barrow brought these seeds back to Kentucky, planted them and allowed them to flower out. Seven years later, he began raising between 500 and 1,000 pounds of tobacco per acre.
This tobacco isn’t burley, which is the most commonly grown variety in Kentucky. Barrow describes his tobacco as taller than burley with leaves that droop rather than stand up right. The cigar tobacco is planted and raised at the same pace as regular tobacco, with the exception of the agent with which it is fertilized.
The fields are plowed as early as February, but the tiny raw seeds are not set until May or June. Before then, the seeds are dropped in styrofoam trays to allow the plant to grow to about four inches before it is set. The big difference between raising burley and cigar tobacco is that the leaves for cigars are stripped in the fields, as opposed to burley, whose leaves are stripped after curing for several weeks while hanging in the barn.
There are three parts of the cigar: the filler inside, the binder to hold the filler together and the wrapper that covers the binder.
Many of Barrow’s wrappers have a cedar-like smell because of their cedar lining.
Connecticut Shade and Havana are the grandparent types of other tobacco he grows, which includes numerous types of Kentucky hybrids. Three major kinds of cigars are made from the tobacco he grows.
The premium kind is the Bluegrass Gold, which has a retail price between $4 and $8, Black Gold, sells between 69 cents and 79 cents, and the Kentucky Country Vanilla, which is around $3.
The finished cigar is sold at many Louisville stores and is available locally at certain businesses.
“People seem to be surprised there is a locally grown cigar,” said Steve Losch, who co-owns Country Collectibles and has carried Barrow’s cigars there for six months. “Our sales have continuously increased. People at first are curious, but after one or two, we get a lot of repeat sales of them.”
“I talk with my retailers, and typically our market is older gentlemen usually from age 27 to 60,” said Barrow. “They are grown men, but there are a few women who enjoy our Country Vanilla.”
Barrow said he sees raising cigar tobacco as an attractive alternative to farmers being limited by burley quotas.
“The farmers are so smart, and are being downtrodden by the government telling them how much tobacco they can grow,” said Barrow. He is not limited by his distributors. It is a free situation for Barrow that he believes is just getting better.
“Each year we get better, and each year is a learning process,” he said. “Anti-smoking legislation is on the books right now, but it will probably peak out and they will leave us alone. People are well educated on tobacco products. There are warning labels, and I think tobacco should be used in moderation, anyway. I think of it like a dessert.”
The legislation is only a minor worry for Barrow. Overall, he has found raising cigar tobacco a comfortable alternative to the industry methods imposed on raising burley.
“It’s a job and a hard job, but I enjoy it and wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Barrow. “I think I get my biggest kick from seeing someone light up one of my cigars and say they really enjoy it.”

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