St. James' unique crop - Perique

St. James' unique crop - Perique

ST. JAMES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - It's a tradition not learned in schools.

"My grandfather, my dad, now us. I got my son trying to plant a little right now," said Ray Martin Sr.

For generations, the Martins have tended hundreds of acres of rich Delta land midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But if you look closely between the cane fields, and only in St. James Parish, there is a different kind of crop.

"For me, this is most of my income right here, not the sugar cane. I use the sugar cane for the expense, the taxes," said Martin.

It's a strain of tobacco called Perique, handed down to early French settlers in the 1750s by the Choctaw and Chickasaw.

"Pierre Chenet was one of the guys who brought it and started to ferment it," said Perique tobacco farmer Richard Roussel.

At one time, Perique was extremely popular. But about 20 years ago, it fell out of favor and the number of growers in the area around Convent, dwindled to just one - Ray Martin's father.

"Me and my dad used to have around 30 barrels, and then they didn't have any more farmers planting until we hooked up with Santa Fe," said Martin.

Thanks to a North Carolina tobacco dealer who decided to use Perique in American Spirit cigarettes, Perique is once again in demand for cigars and cigarettes. And there are now more than 25 growers in St. James parish, and there could soon be more as demand  expands overseas.

"They just recently sold American Spirit cigarettes to japan for $7 billion," said Roussel.

The tobacco is grown from seed so small it has to be coated so they won't be lost.

"This little cap is around 5,000 seeds," said Roussel.

Seedlings are planted in mid-March and grow for about three months. When they mature, the leaves are more than 18 inches long. They are then hung on wires in open air barns. The leaves are then placed in oak whiskey barrels, where they are aged for four months.
It's hard work. Every six weeks, the barrels are opened, the liquid is drained off and the leaves are  the fermenting process can continue.

"It has to be turned over three times before we can process it and mix it with anything," said Perique tobacco processor Anthony Morgan.

Ray martin's shed has expanded five-fold in 10 years, and he now ages 160 barrels in his barn near Convent.
"a barrel, that goes for about $6,000 a barrel," said Martin.

Most of the region's Perique farmers bring their tobacco here, to the L.A. Poche processing plant, which has operated alongside the river since the turn of last century, though it's recently undergone a multi-million-dollar expansion.

"This is the only place in the world you can find this. St. James parish," said Morgan.

This season the plants are doing well, the rain has been just right. Too  much can kill the plants.

"A couple of years ago, the rain wiped us out, we only had 50 barrels, said Martin.

It can be back-breaking work. This tobacco is harvested in June, one of the hottest months of the year. They don't use machines, they use cane knives like these with each stem being cut right at the base. And there are other pitfalls as well.

The tobacco rows often harbor dangerous snakes.

"You gotta watch, just look, if he's there he'll bite you," said Martin.

So why St. James parish? The LSU AG Center says it's likely because of crevasses or breaks in the river levees over the years - breaks that  pumped rich sediment into the soil around Convent.

"It's the only place it's grown in the world, and it does bring income to those households, and it's viable. The number is growing," said St. James Parish President Tim Roussel.

And there's a new use for Perique.

"T.J. Breaux went to France and is putting it into a liqueur called Perique made in France," said the parish president.

Though Perique is used in making $20 cigars, and various brands of cigarettes, the biggest Perique grower in the world doesn't touch the stuff.

"No, Perique's too strong," said Martin.

But he treasures a tradition that appears to be growing.

"This is the final product here, this is how it's supposed to look," said Morgan.

Ray Martin Sr. is passing the Perique tradition on to his son.

"Yeah, yeah, somebody keeping it going, somebody keeping the farm going," said Martin.

And if the weather cooperates, he and Ray Jr. will grow more perique this year than anyone else, keeping alive a unique local tradition.

The Tobacco Institute says perique has been shipped out of New Orleans for more than 250 years and  is considered to be one of America's first export crops.
Perique is so strong, it's not smoked by itself. It is usually added to other tobaccos to improve the flavor.

Copyright 2017 WVUE. All rights reserved.