Nothing particularly unusual was going on in the acres of farmland that lay behind a locked gate in Jalapa, Nicaragua. The shade-covered fields that were once owned by dictator Anastasio Somoza were growing tobacco just as they had decades before. Nevertheless, in 2000, in the post-cigar-boom world, the operation was a source of some suspicion in the industry.
For one thing, its owner was new to the cigar world and his workers were all from Cuba. Furthermore, no one in the cigar busines had any idea who was buying all the leaf. The rumor around the industry? That the tobacco was being produced for Cuba’s cigar factories, to be used in place of Cuban tobacco to wrap some of Cuba’s best cigars.
Today, Eduardo Antonio Fernández Pujals, the owner of Aganorsa S.A., chuckles at the wild stories, as it was his farm that caused the ruckus. “I have no association with Cuba except hiring Cuban tobacco growers,” says the 61-year-old. He’s a tall man with thick salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle. He talks in a very calm and methodical style. He came to Nicaragua in 1997 with a desire to get into agriculture. Now he understands why his moves created suspicion, for he did a very unusual thing for the cigar business—he planted his crop first, and sought out customers later. “Tobacco is planted by contract with established factories. I came out of nowhere and planted this huge crop and didn’t have customers—it caused an uproar among the establishment.”
Now there is no mystery about who buys his product, as Aganorsa has been transformed from an unknown organization into a major force in the world of Nicaraguan tobacco that has built a clientele by growing tobacco in the old-fashioned Cuban style, using Cuban seeds and the oversight of well-seasoned agronomists from Cuba.
Aganorsa plants some 1,200 acres annually in Nicaragua yielding some 15,000 bales of wrapper, binder and filler tobacco, all of it grown from Cuban seed, enough to make tens of millions of cigars. Aganorsa claims to be the biggest grower in Nicaragua—Plasencia Tobacco disputes this, saying it is the larger grower—but there is no denying that Aganorsa grows immense amounts of cigar tobacco that is being used inside and around some of the world’s best cigars.
Giant and boutique companies alike get tobacco from Aganorsa. The Illusione Epernay Le Taureau, Cigar Aficionado’s No. 3 Cigar of the Year, is made with Aganorsa tobacco, as are several others on the list. Altadis U.S.A. Inc., which is one of the world’s largest producers of premium cigars, is a major client. Aganorsa also counts Padrón Cigars Inc.—a company that has scored higher in Cigar Aficionado taste tests than any other—as a customer.
“It’s just unique,” says Aganorsa client Ernesto Padilla. Most of his cigars use Aganorsa tobacco, and some are made entirely of the company’s leaf. “The way they cure the tobacco, the way they process it, it’s what Cuban cigars should taste like and burn like.”
Aganorsa has its own cigar brands—Casa Fernandez—which unsurprisingly uses Aganorsa leaf. Most of its cigars are made in Honduras by Fabrica de Tabacos Raices Cubanas, which uses vast amounts of Aganorsa tobacco. Fernández also owns a small cigar factory in the United States.
Fernández clearly enjoys cigars, but it’s tobacco growing that is his passion. “Tobacco is not something you can plant anywhere. The soil and the infrastructure has to be there,” says Fernández. “My philosophy about agriculture is do what has been done since time immemorial. Find quality vegas. In order to make that huge jump I had to go back to Cuba—and that’s where the suspicion arose.”
Born in Havana, Fernández moved to the United States as a young boy. After graduating from Wharton School of Business, he began a career in banking in New York City. He spent 10 years in Manhattan, then moved to Madrid and joined his brother Leopoldo to open Telepizza, a restaurant chain combining Spain’s tapas with New York pizza, delivered on Vespas. The business proved very successful, with sales exceeding $275 million, and the brothers took the company public.