Perique tobacco only grows in St. James Parish. Percy Martin farms the world’s supply – all 12 acres of it.
August 21, 2002
Percy Martin sits in the cab of his pickup truck under the shade of a pecan tree. His 10-year-old poodle, Fifi, sits in his lap. He’s 84 years old and has a bad knee. He gets around in his truck, his four-wheeler or with an aluminum cane.
He farms 235 acres just outside the town of Paulina in the community of Grande Pointe in St. James Parish. With the help of his five sons – Percy Jr., Leo, Ray, Brian and Teddy – he raises tomatoes, bell peppers, sugar-cane and perique tobacco. They plant, harvest and process the last 12 acres of perique in the world. And they do it all by hand.
St. James Parish was once a predominantly agricultural community, but the industrial plants that now rest on the horizon are luring the younger generations into newer fields not cultivated by their forefathers. The sign outside of the parish’s visitors’ center reads, “Community and Industry Working Together.”
Percy says his grandchildren are “making more money than all of us put together.” He hopes that his sons will be able to farm perique after he’s gone, but he doesn’t think the 200-year-old tradition will continue with the fifth generation.
“I don’t believe I’m going to last too darn long either,” he says with a laugh.
Percy cultivates perique, but he doesn’t smoke. The tobacco’s too strong and “when I work in it, that’s enough.” His heavy French accent sounds like he’s from south of Abbeville, even though he’s only 50 miles from downtown New Orleans. He was born and raised in Grande Pointe. His grandfather and his father raised perique. When he was a boy, there were some 15 families who maintained 500 acres of the tobacco.
Perique grows only in St. James Parish. No one has been able to pinpoint why it will only take root there, but there are generally three accepted factors that make perique distinct – the St. James soil, the perique seed and the fermentation process. Percy has even heard that some scientists believe that St. James Parish sits on top of a mineral deposit that gives the tobacco its robust and distinct flavor. He doesn’t know if that’s true, though. What he does know is that he needs seeds, soil and fermentation to make perique.
Perique’s distinctive and powerful flavor makes it nearly impossible to smoke by itself. It’s usually blended with other tobaccos at a very low percentage to add another dimension of flavor to the dominant tobacco. If your average tobacco could be compared to a light beer, then perique would be a barley wine – strong, heavy and bearable only in small doses. And although the fermentation process makes for a stronger-tasting smoke, it has been proven to produce a lower nicotine content than other domestic tobaccos.
Percy has high hopes for this year’s crop, but he also felt the same way about last year’s crop. That was before Tropical Storm Allison rolled into town, raining for six days straight and leaving 24 inches of rain.
“That just about wiped us out,” he says.
The Martins managed to salvage a fifth of what they had expected to take in.
“That was about enough to quit for good,” he says. “How would you like to work and your boss won’t pay you? That’s how perique is sometimes.”
In the 1950 book, All This Is Louisiana, Frances Parkinson Keyes wrote about the production of perique tobacco. Baton Rouge photographer Elemore Morgan Sr. documented the process with his photos.
Keyes wrote, “This is perique tobacco, which has been called the greatest mystery crop in the world – and no wonder. In spite of repeated efforts to raise it elsewhere, it flourishes only on a triangular piece of land, skirting the Mississippi for about 10 miles between Convent and LaPlace and thrusting its third point back into the swamps about three miles distant.”
By the time the Acadians made their way into St. James Parish in 1776, the Indians were already raising the tobacco. Pierre Chenet was the first to begin raising it commercially in 1824. He is also credited with refining the fermenting process, which gives perique its pungent flavor. Chenet’s nickname was “Perique,” and the tobacco he raised became associated with his name.
Keyes described the labor-intensive process of cultivating, harvesting and fermenting perique. Today the process, for the most part, remains the same. The crop is sown, harvested and processed by hand.
In 1950, there were two families controlling the production of perique, the Roussels and Guglielmos. The Roussels were both planters and dealers of the tobacco. Farrell Roussel also grew sugarcane to supplement his perique crop. J.F. Guglielmo, the principal of Lutcher High School, was also a broker of the tobacco. Alfred Guglielmo told Pipes magazine in 1996 that his family had abandoned the perique business in 1990 because of a vanishing perique supply. In its heyday, the Guglielmo Perique Tobacco Co. processed anywhere from 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of perique a year.
Today, the Martins produce annually an average of 16,000 pounds of perique.
On a Sunday afternoon in early July, Percy waits outside of his house on his Honda four-wheeler. He’s waiting for all of his boys to show up to harvest tobacco. They have already harvested some 6,000 stalks, but there are about 22,000 stalks left to cut. For the last week, it rained every day, and they couldn’t get into the fields. On a good day, they can cut about 3,000 stalks.
They begin planting the crop in the last week of March and are usually finished by mid-April. Percy says to begin planting “any later than that is not good. Any earlier than that is not good.” Depending on the weather and how well the plants mature, he begins harvesting the crop usually at the end of June. It takes three weeks to get all 12 acres of the perique harvested.
A strong breeze is blowing through, and there are dark, heavy clouds off in the distance over Gramercy. The men are all accounted for. Even though it’s four in the afternoon, the sweat easily rolls down their faces, even before they make it into the field. They are dressed in blue uniforms with patches that say “Percy Martin Farms” on the breast. They wear either straw hats or baseball caps. They each choose their cane knife and begin sharpening it for the harvest.
In the distance a bolt of lightning strikes the ground. A few seconds later thunder crackles through the sky.
Percy says, “We don’t like to hear that around here. When we go to sharpening the knives to cut tobacco, we bring the thunder out. We see that often.”
There’s another clap of thunder.
Ray says, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Ray is the field leader, and he looks into the sky, calculating what to do, whether there’s enough time to harvest the field before the rain rolls in. He decides to risk it, and they make their way into the field.
While his sons work, Percy sits on his four-wheeler. He would give them a hand if he could, if he didn’t have a bum knee. His doctor told him to stay out of the sun, but he can’t do that. He has to oversee the work. At least his hat keeps the sun off of his face. His sons aren’t in the best of health either. You wouldn’t know it from the way they work, but three of his boys have already had five heart bypasses among them.
They move slowly down the rows, in the shadows of the sugarcane stalks looming overhead. With one quick lick of the blade, they sever the tobacco plants at their base. A second blow, or even a third, increases the risk of damaging the plant.
“Tobacco is very delicate to handle,” Ray says.
After the stalks are cut, they are carefully laid out over the severed bases. They are left out overnight. The moist night air will make the leaves easier to handle, less brittle to the touch.
There are 400 stalks to a row. It takes the men an hour to walk down the five rows in the field and harvest 2,000 stalks.
While they work, the men don’t talk. There’s nothing to say. The work is in their blood. It’s as routine as the sun rising and setting over the fields of sugarcane and perique.
At six the next morning, the Martins stand around outside the barn, waiting for a few teenage boys from the neighborhood. The boys will load the tobacco the men harvested the day before.
Percy can’t wait any longer. He gets in his truck with Teddy, and they set off to wake the boys from their sleep.
Leo remembers a time when “the little boys used to be waiting on the crew. Now we wait on them.”
Percy Jr. says he and his brothers will continue to farm perique if they can make a little money at it. But he doesn’t see any desire in the younger generation to farm perique after they’re all gone.
An hour later, Percy has rounded up three teenagers, and the work begins. Teddy drives the tractor, straddling the rows, while the boys fling the wet leaves onto the flatbed trailer. The dew flies from the leaves in an arch over their heads. When they stack leaves incorrectly, Teddy tells them and makes them correct their mistakes. The young men don’t seem to care, and Teddy corrects them several times.
Teddy brings the tobacco to the barn, backs it in and dumps it on a sheet of plastic covering the dirt floor. The barn has only one front wall, and there are cages with chickens and quail in the barn. Some tobacco stalks are already hanging up to dry in the barn. The drying tobacco smells earthy and pungent.
For each stalk, they drive a nail into the base at a 45-degree angle. They use a small wooden paddle to drive in the nails. Percy Jr. says they are called cop-cops because of the sound they make when they tap the nails into the stalks.
The stalks are hung by the nails on one of several thin wires that run the length of the 160-foot barn. For the next 21 days, the tobacco is left to dry. The leaves need ventilation and hot weather to dry properly. If they run out of room after they have gathered all of the tobacco from the 12 acres, Percy has three more barns he can use to dry the leaves.
Ray is smoking a Marlboro. He won’t smoke perique. It’s too strong. He’s looking over the leaves. It’s the biggest and best crop he has seen in a few years.
Percy says, “The crop is going to be a good one. The quality is looking good.” He’s worried though about the weather in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s always keeping a close eye on it, hoping that it stays put until they can get in the crop from the fields. “We just keep our fingers crossed,” he says.
By noon, the men have finished hanging the leaves from the field they harvested the day before. They will eat lunch and, if the weather holds, they will be back in another field in the afternoon to harvest more of the perique.
It all depends on whether or not the sun’s shining.
“Tobacco is like hay,” Percy says. “You make it with sunshine.”
Three weeks later, on a warm Tuesday morning, there are a dozen people at work in the barn. They sit on plastic chairs, overturned plastic buckets and milk crates. An old radio covered in dust sits on the ground, playing gospel music and telling the workers that there is a place for them, a place of glory, not of this world.
It will take them two weeks to strip the leaves from the stalks of the entire crop. Two groups are at work.
The first removes the stalks from the wires overhead, removes the nails and strips the leaves from the stalks. Boys then gather as many leaves as they can in their hands. They beat the dust out of the leaves on one of two whiskey barrels laid on their side. Once they’re through, they bring the leaves to Ray and Percy Jr.
The two men are dressed in rubber boots and plastic aprons. They stand over a wooden table and spray a fine mist of water from a garden hose overhead onto the leaves. Then they flip the leaves over and do the same to the other side. Moistening the leaves makes it easier to remove the stems and prepares them for the final process of fermentation. After shaking and beating the excess water out of the leaves, the boys place them in a long wooden, rectangular box in the center of the second group.
The second group takes each leaf and rips out the central spine and discards it. When there are enough leaves, they are wrapped together in two-pound bundles. The bundles are then placed in the whiskey barrels where they will ferment. It’s an unusual process for tobacco to undergo, and it’s the only tobacco in the country that’s treated this way.
“If you don’t ferment it, you ain’t got no perique,” Percy says.
The barrels are placed under pressure with huge jackscrews. In September, and again in February, the pressure will be removed, the leaves flipped over in the barrels and placed under pressure again. By March, the entire process will be completed, and the perique will be ready for shipping. It will also be time to start the entire process over again and to plant next year’s crop.
Percy Jr. says they managed to get the entire crop in this year, and it’s the best he’s seen in five or six years. Leo says if they’re lucky, they will have about 30 barrels, at 500 pounds apiece, for the entire crop. Ray thinks they can get $6 a pound for the perique.
Percy hopes his sons can continue to farm perique and to get a fair price for it. After they’re gone, though, he doesn’t see much hope for the tobacco. It’s too labor intensive.
“People don’t want to work anymore,” he says, “not the young ones. When the old strippers die, who’s going to replace them? That’s a question for the future.”
Ray hopes to keep perique in the family. His brothers have talked about it, and they want to continue growing perique. But they’re not concerned about keeping a 200-year-old legacy alive. Only two factors will decide if they continue to raise perique.
Ray says, “If we can get a good price and the government’s not on our ass.”
Finding A Market
Christopher Brown and Matt Nichols are tobacco enthusiasts. They each enjoy smoking pipes and learning as much as they can about tobacco. They had both read about perique tobacco and were curious to see how it was grown. In the summer of 1998, they set out one afternoon from New Orleans, down River Road to St. James Parish, to find the source of it.
“In our minds,” Nichols says, “what we had envisioned was that we would see (perique) plantations, that there would be many farms and tobacco would be readily available.”
They found no such plantations. When they pulled into a restaurant in Convent for a bite to eat, they asked some older residents if there was anyone still growing perique. The old timers directed them to Percy Martin’s farm.
Brown and Nichols met Martin, the last man farming perique commercially. Martin told them of his woes of selling the crop to the only broker in the area and his inability to get a better price for his tobacco. He was considering quitting all together. It was already too much work, and the lousy price he was getting for it was only compounding the problem. If he could get a better price, he could continue raising perique.
Nichols says, “The reality is that they’re relying on tobacco. Without the tobacco money, I think the farm would fold.”
Brown and Nichols realized that the world’s supply of perique and an agricultural tradition were both on the edge of extinction. Neither one of them knew how to run a business, but they agreed to help Martin find a buyer for the perique.
Nichols says, “This was less about the tobacco and more about the farmer whose blood seemed to be contained within the crop.”
Brown and Nichols became brokers of perique overnight. They sent packages of the perique to 50 different tobacco companies, but they were unable to generate an interest.
Only the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. showed any interest in purchasing the crop. At the end of 1999, Santa Fe agreed to purchase all the perique Martin could produce. Since then, Santa Fe has purchased an annual average of 12,000 pounds of perique from Martin.
Santa Fe’s Senior Vice President Mike Little says, “Mr. Martin’s limited supply limits us in how we market the product.” With that supply, Santa Fe generates 100,000 cartons a year of a perique-blended cigarette.
“It’s just another style we can offer to our consumers,” he says. “It’s like a cognac or a cigar, to relax with later in the day.”
Santa Fe’s perique cigarettes make up only 3 to 4 percent of the company’s total tobacco sales. The blended cigarette uses between 10 to 20 percent of perique and the rest of the tobacco is domestically grown. The company uses no artificial flavors in the perique cigarette or any of its products.
Little says Martin’s perique seeds have adapted to the soil of St. James Parish. One could take the seeds and grow them anywhere in the world, “but you couldn’t come up with the same product.” And it’s also “the way that it’s handled when it’s harvested. He’s also causing forced fermentation of the tobacco by packing it in those whiskey barrels. It sweetens the tobacco by soaking it in its own sap. It’s the only tobacco I know of in the U.S. that’s force fermented.”