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Surprise in Connecticut

Some of the world's best cigars use Connecticut wrapper leaves.
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
bundle of cigars, Winter 92/93

(continued from page 2)

The emphasis on quality began in the 1850s. As a farm manual published at that time notes, "the tobacco grown in Connecticut is used for making cigars, but chiefly for the outside, or wrappers for cigars made of imported tobacco. For this purpose only the best leaves are used, and it is in order to obtain these best leaves (the prime wrappers) that the tobacco is cultivated." By 1870, more than eight million pounds of tobacco were being produced by local farmers, and there were 235 factories in Connecticut making hand-rolled cigars with imported filler tobaccos and Connecticut wrapper leaf, which was then selling for 40 cents a pound. The growing of wrapper leaf in "shaded" fields was introduced in the valley around 1900, and by 1904, Connecticut shade tobacco was winning awards in international competitions. By 1924, there were 15,000 acres of tobacco being cultivated under shade in the Connecticut River Valley.

The technique of growing shade tobacco has changed little in the past 92 years. From a distance, the covered fields seem like tents of some nomadic tribe, billowing in the soft breezes that sweep the valley, and gleaming white in the bright summer sun. To form the tents, a tobacco field is set with posts nine feet high and about 33 feet apart. Heavy wires are stretched from post to post, and a light, durable fabric (once cotton but now synthetic) is tied across them and draped along the sides. Under the tents at midday on a bright, sunny afternoon, the light is soft and diffused the air moist and slightly warmer than outside. "If this tobacco were grown in direct sunlight," explains Palombo, "it would be coarse and tough. By filtering the sun, you can produce a thinner, more elastic leaf, that cures to a lighter, even color."

The growing cycle begins in late March, when the tobacco is seeded in special beds covered with clear plastic stretched over hoops. The seedlings are grown in trays of 96 plants each, with about 125 trays required per acre of planting. By mid-May, when they are four to six inches tall, the seedlings are ready for transplanting, and are set in the fields, 14 inches apart in rows alternately 36 and 44 inches wide, with the wider rows used as access ways for farm workers. During the early stages of development, the fields are weeded and dusted with insecticide and fungicide to guard against aphids and mold.

In late June, the three bottom leaves, too small for cigar wrappers, are removed along with any "sucker" leaves that would otherwise grow from the joint of leaf and stalk. After suckering, support strings are tied and then wrapped around the growing plants and attached to the ceiling wires of the tents. This helps the stalks grow straight and is an added prevention against breakage in bad weather.

A quiet reverence pervades the tents during the growing season, as if even the sound of a human voice might disturb the delicate leaves. A full-grown Connecticut wrapper leaf plant will stand as high as ten feet, its giant leaves, some nearly a half-yard across and twice again as long, brushing its neighbors on all sides, so that beneath the tent the field is a near solid mass of greenery. By the time the plants are ready for their first priming in late July, any untrained movement through the field could spell disaster for the crop.

"Shade tobacco is incredibly delicate in the field," says Nuñez, who, after 20 years in the tobacco raising and processing business, insists he still has much to learn. "If you walk into the field, no matter how careful you try to be, you break leaves. At all stages it is a delicate process. If you do something wrong in the seed beds or in the field, you will have to live with it until the tobacco is on the cigar. The tobacco will never forgive you, it will keep telling you that you made a mistake."

A mid-August morning dawns hot, a hazy, muggy day much like the Tropics. Unusually rainy weather has slowed the tobacco harvest and many plants, stretching their tops toward the billowing fabric of a nine-foot-high tent, are reaching their ripest point. By the end of the month, weather permitting, the crop will be in.

Today, the pickers are on their third "priming," deftly snapping the seventh, eighth and ninth leaves from the bottom of the thick, almost iridescent green stalk and gingerly placing them on long, apparently stationary mats stretched between the wider rows of the field. The men work in teams, with one picking while another sits waiting at the end of the row on a wheelbarrowlike contraption with a bicycle attached to its front where the bucket should be.

Once the row is picked, the man on the bicycle begins to peddle, and the long mat stretched between the rows, now covered with the fresh tobacco leaves, begins to move, winding slowly around a spool that has replaced the front tire of the bike. The picker stands at the end of the row, lifting the leaves off the mat as it passes and carefully placing them in wide plastic containers, which, when filled, are slid onto low wagons for the short ride to the drying shed. There are a dozen such teams working side-by-side, and another dozen or so men driving tractors, loading and unloading tobacco containers, moving the leaves out of the sun. It will take them nearly five hours to complete one picking of this particular five-acre field.

Chris Rivera, field manager on one of the four, 50-acre farms that Culbro Tobacco is operating in 1992, and a company veteran of 28 years, stoops and picks up one of the many discarded fresh leaves that litter the lane between the tobacco fields. "Blossom rot," he says, pointing to a large, dark spot staining one side of the leaf. "It's been a bad year for it. When we see them like that, we pull them out; it doesn't make sense to process a leaf that's already spoiled."

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