Turkey is known for being one of the highest quality producers of Turkish (or Oriental) tobacco with its rich fertile land. As we traveled throughout the Black Sea region, we could see miles of tobacco fields. Turkey’s tobacco production constitutes 4 percent of the global production of 7 million tons, placing Turkey fifth after China, India, the United States of America, and Brazil. About 65 percent of oriental tobacco is produced in Turkey.
Although the last ten years have seen a decrease in smokers’ numbers in Turkey, today, 30% of the population still enjoys smoking tobacco.
As we entered the city of Samsun, you could see rolling hills full of Turkish tobacco plants for as far as the eye can see. Before this encounter with these tobacco fields, I didn’t know anything about Turkey’s tobacco industry, and therefore, I began to learn about its farming and manufacturing industry in Turkey.
History of Tobacco
Did you know that not only did Christopher Columbus discover America, but he introduced tobacco to the rest of the world? Although Columbus did not know of tobacco at that time, he quickly learned from the Native Americans how to smoke and enjoy the dried leaves. Known in the Caribbean islands at “tobako,” it was given to Columbus as a gift. Later, the Portuguese brought this plant to Europe and eventually arrived in the Ottoman Empire around the 1550s, mainly used for medicinal purposes.
Turkish (Oriental) Tobacco
Today, the highest quality of Turkish tobacco globally is grown in the Balkan region of Turkey. Turkish tobacco has been praised for its highly aromatic, sun-cured, and various flavors. Turkish tobacco has smaller leaves and richer colors than other varieties. Due to being sun-cured, it makes it more aromatic and acidic than air or smoke-cured tobaccos.
Turkish (Oriental) Tobacco
Turkish tobacco contains less nicotine and fewer carcinogens than other varieties. Today, most cigarettes are blended, such as Camel, which uses a mix of Turkish tobacco with more robust tobacco such as Virginia tobacco.
Before developing the cigarette-manufacturing machine, smokers rolled their own or used long-shafted pipes called cibuk (chee-BOOK). The manufacturing of cigarettes being sold in packets did not come about until the 19th century. The hookah or “nargile” is a mechanism that allows users to inhale filtered smoke by passing through water into a hose, has been enjoyed for hundreds of years as well as today. Pipe smoking is rare in Turkey, but I can tell you that Turks love their cigarettes. You will find many decorative pipes sold in various shops, but these are mainly for tourists.
Growing & Curing Tobacco
Tobacco begins as a seed sown in a specially constructed seedbed. After two months, the seed would grow into a plant some 15-20 cm high, strong enough to continue its growth in the field for the next couple of months.
Field of Tobacco
The harvesting is either done leaf by leaf, such as in Turkish tobacco, or by the whole plant.
Farmhouse with dried tobacco leaves
Curing, also known as color curing, plays a significant role in defining the leaves’ final quality and character. Curing tobacco has always been a process necessary to prepare the leaves for consumption. When picked, it is considered green tobacco and too wet to ignite to smoke. This slow oxidation and degradation of carotenoids in the tobacco leaf give the tobacco an aromatic flavor.
Turkish tobacco is sun-cured. The leaves are draped over a line to dry or lay on a wire mesh in the sun. Once leaves are dried, they are sorted by stalk position and quality, then packed in bales. Leaf buyers evaluate the bales for purchase. Then they are shipped to manufacturers to be blended with other types of tobacco to be made into cigarettes.
Tobacco on drying racks.
Tobacco Impact on Economy
Although tobacco farming is one of the most labor-intensive activities, it is an essential employment source in Turkey. The tobacco industry employs at least 1.5 million people in Turkey. Most of the labor is met with family laborers, with approximately 600,000 tobacco farmers in Turkey.
Cultivating and growing tobacco has been a part of Turkey’s history and culture for decades. Serving as one of the largest employers in Turkey, it plays a significant role in the economy.
Learning about the tobacco farming industry has made me appreciate the hard work of these farmers. Our journey through the Black Sea region, learning about its history, the people, and the industries that make these communities prosperous, was a gratifying experience.