Tipp farmer with ambitions to produce premium cigars from tobacco grown in Ireland
Talk of Tipperary and the first things that come to mind are horse racing and hurling. Tobacco is unlikely to garner a mention, unless you're a smoker; and, even then, the peculiarities of growing the crop would hardly feature in conversation.
However, this could all change should matters go right for a man living in the south of the Premier County.
Harry Everard from Kilsheelan, between Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel, aims to make Tipp the home of the Irish cigar.
He has already secured a licence from the Revenue Commissioners for the growing and handling of tobacco, and has produced two crops to date.
While most people would associate tobacco with warmer climes, such as the Caribbean or the southern states of America, Harry says the crop actually thrives in Irish conditions.
Indeed, Exclusive Cigar Manufacturers of Ireland (ECMI) in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, produced a batch of cigars from Everard's tobacco, which were then sampled by industry connoisseurs.
He says the results were very positive and gave the project a massive boost. Not that Harry ever doubted that tobacco could be grown in this country. Although born and reared in England, his great, great, grandfather, Sir Nugent Everard, pioneered the cultivation of the crop at his estate outside Navan, Co Meath in the late 19th century.
A noted agricultural innovator, Sir Nugent was a prizewinning breeder of Hereford cattle at the Royal Dublin Show.
However, he was best known for his efforts to promote tobacco growing. Indeed, he was immortalised by James Joyce in Ulysses who wrote: "You can grow any mortal thing in Irish soil…there was Colonel Everard down there in Navan growing tobacco."
Sir Nugent's efforts met with reasonable success for 30 years after tobacco was first planted in 1898, with over 100 people employed at the processing centre he developed on his estate at Randlestown.
Moreover, a network of small growers who supplied the Randlestown operation were able to earn up to £30 from an acre of the crop during the First World War. This was at a time when labourers were earning around 10 shillings a week or the equivalent of 50p.
The sector went into decline after the Westminster government reduced duties on tobacco imported from Britain's colonies in 1919. The reluctance of Irish tobacco manufacturers to use locally-grown tobacco in their cigars, cigarettes and pipe tobacco through the 1920s and '30s meant any chance of recovery was dashed.
The Everard family estate at Randlestown was eventually lost to a combination of death duties and borrowings linked to the tobacco venture after both Sir Nugent and his son died within 11 days of one another in 1929.
Efforts to buy back the property floundered when deposits of copper and tin were discovered on the lands and it was bought by Tara Mines. "I was always aware of the history of the tobacco industry here, and my family's connection to it," Harry says.
"I wanted to start a business of my own so I said 'why don't I give this tobacco growing a go.'"
Harry was actually born in England and managed a chain of 15 bars and restaurants in London before deciding to Ireland with his Tipperary-born wife Nicola. The couple settled near her family's home farm outside the village of Kilsheelan.
The Everards have three children - Ben, Alice and Rory - and while Harry works full-time as a Rural Recreation Officer with Kilkenny Leader Partnership, what spare time the family have has gone into their tobacco venture.
Despite the busy schedule, Harry is confident the enterprise has the potential to be both viable and profitable.
Growing and harvesting tobacco is a painstaking and labour intensive process and Harry knows that a lot of hard work lies ahead to commercialise the concept.
He has already spent six months in the National Archives and on the internet piecing together the best tobacco growing approaches used in Ireland between 1890 and 1950. In addition, he has studied modern tobacco husbandry techniques from Cuba, and has two years of trial and error under his belt.
The two crops grown so far both did "very well" but were "not without issues", Harry says.
He describes the problems encountered to-date as "technical and not insurmountable" and is very confident for the 2017 crop. However, from the experience of 2015 and 2016 he knows it won't be easy.
"We started out in the poly-tunnel sowing the tiny seeds in seed trays with a salt shaker," Harry recalls.
This was followed by six days thinning thousands of emerging shoots with a pair of tweezers, before they were moved onto the tilled ground when the plants were around 10cm high.
"The planting rate is around 7,500 plants to the acre, so that involved four days on our hands and knees," Harry explains. "There are modern mechanised solutions to this so we will not be doing that again for sure."
The crop is planted in early June and is ready for harvest by the end of August, at which point the mature plants are up to 1.5m high. "Each plant produces around 15 leaves and these are picked one at a time," Harry says.
The harvested leaves are then cured for eight to 10 weeks in a shed where the temperature and humidity is controlled.
Although each plant needs individual minding, Harry maintains that the crop is hardy and durable, and can be surprisingly forgiving.
"This year was a battle because the crop was nearly overwhelmed with weeds, so it required a lot of work," Harry says.
Dust from roadway maintenance and the crop's sensitivity to the wind were among the other hazards encountered, and the harvest was affected as a result.
Even so, Harry is satisfied with the progress made over the last two years.
"I have proven at this stage that it is possible to grow good quality tobacco in Ireland. The challenge now is to make this a viable and feasible business," Harry says.
He maintains that an outlet exists for cigars manufactured in Ireland from home-produced tobacco.
"I feel there is a niche market out there, especially among the Irish abroad, for a quality cigar made with Irish tobacco," Harry insists.
"I would like to think we will supply our first cigars to this market by mid-2018."
Sir Nugent's dream is not dead yet.
Further information is available on www.facebook.com/theirishtobaccocompany
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