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Field Trip

A day in the connecticut shade
Michael Moretti
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

I reach out to pluck a bright green tobacco leaf from the stalk in front of me, but a cautionary tap on the shoulder makes me stop. Apparently, something about my amateur approach worries my guide, Ernest Gocaj. The thick, humid July air infiltrates the white shade tent.

I am taking the field for a day, working as a tobacco hand in the Connecticut River Valley.

After a brief tutorial from Gocaj, I learn the correct method: place four fingers inside the "V" formed by the stem and the stalk, keeping my pinky finger flush to the stalk; place my thumb beneath the stem; and with a firm, downward flick of the hand, snap off the leaf.

By mid-morning, I am smack in the middle of a swathe of Connecticut shade. With curious glances, the regular workforce makes room for me in a row of tall plants that look like corn stalks on steroids and sprout leaves as large as elephant ears.

Great white cloth tents cover the fields of shade tobacco. The cloth, propped up by wooden posts, completely shelters the plants. In the old days the shade cloth was cotton cheesecloth, but today synthetic materials are standard. The partially translucent fibers allow sunlight to filter through without directly beating on the plants, and mimic cloud cover to produce a more delicate, less veined leaf. (In 1900, growers planted tobacco seed native to Sumatra in the valley, which has intensely sunny summers, and shaded the fields to replicate Sumatra's cloudy conditions.) The cloth also guards against wind, insects and weather, although rain can drip through. The use of synthetic coverings, introduced in the '70s, is one of the few technological advances introduced in tobacco harvesting over the past century.

Much of the tobacco from this Windsor, Connecticut, farm goes to General Cigar Co.'s popular Macanudo brand. One side of cloth has been lifted up and tied, exposing the bounty within. I step inside. Rows of bright green plants stand out against the stark white backdrop. The leaves have begun to wilt on the stalk in the heat. My guides, Augusto Nuñez and Gocaj, advise that we get going.

The tent's sultry interior is like a white room, an intimate space in which to work. Noises from the nearby road are dulled, and the smell of the surrounding vegetation is pungent, like the scent of freshly cut grass. The shade plants towering over me are about 10 feet high, even though they were planted only about two months before.

I walk on a runner of white cloth placed on the ground between each row of plants. It leads to its source, an old rusty bicycle located at the end of the row at the edge of the field. You can't ride it anywhere. A giant cloth roll sits where a front wheel normally would be. The back wheel is propped off the ground, and when the "rider" pedals, the cloth carpet snakes back to the bike. My first job is to pick leaves and place them on the cloth so the bike, like a conveyor belt, can reel them in. This method limits damage by reducing foot traffic and handling of the fragile leaves, and streamlines the process by setting up an assembly line: one worker picks, a second pedals and a third takes the tobacco stacks off the cloth and puts them in bins destined for the curing barns.

I wipe the sweat from my brow, adjust my Yankees cap and crouch down to start picking, or priming as it's formally called. Priming is the art of picking tobacco so that each set of leaves (also called a priming) is picked as a discrete group. We are working on the second priming of the stalk. The first has been picked earlier. Priming tobacco is a bottom-up approach, and each priming consists of three leaves. The lowest leaves on the plant are discarded. The first priming is the next set of leaves closest to the ground, the second is the next pair up, and so on. Shade plants have about eight primings in all. Different breeds of tobacco have various numbers of leaves with varying sizes, hence varying primings, and some tobaccos are stalk-cut rather than primed.

Primings necessitate hands-on contact with the plants. If the picking did not require such scrutiny, and was more like the harvesting of corn, a machine could roll through the rows and suck up the tobacco leaves. But priming must be done by hand.

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