Made In the Shade: Connecticut Shade
For A century, Connecticut farmers have grown some of the world's finest cigar wrapper tobacco
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99
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Blemishes greatly degrade the value of a tobacco leaf. In most parts of the world, rejected wrappers are sold as binders, but that is an uneconomical proposition in Connecticut. "It's not worth it," says Folz. Expensive binder tobacco sells for about $8 a pound, not enough for growers in Connecticut to recoup their costs.
Some clever growers have devised ingenious ways to limit damage. At the Brown farm, a worker sits on a modified exercise bike while another worker picks the leaves inside the rows, placing tobacco on a mat that runs the length of the row, between the plants. When the mat is full, the biker pedals, cranking in the mat, and a worker removes the leaves and places them in crates. This limits the number of trips between the tobacco plants and speeds the harvest.
"Jean, who invented the bike?" asks Stanton Brown, repeating a reporter's question. Brown's children smile. "My grandfather," says Jean-Marc Bade, comanager of the Windsor Shade cooperative of growers, which grows more Connecticut shade than any other organization in the valley. The question and answer are repeated often on a tour of the Brown farm.
Bade's grandfather, Maurice Bourquin, is also the answer to the question "Who came up with an automated sewing machine that stitches tobacco leaves together for hanging in the barns?" In the Caribbean, the process is done slowly, by hand.
A Connecticut-shade farmer is much like an auto aficionado with a European sports car--everything costs him more. Just as the price of tires, plugs and an oil change for a Jaguar XJ6 will run you much more than it will cost your neighbor with the Ford Escort, maintenance and labor costs for northern tobacco growers are far more expensive than those attached to growing tobacco in other regions.
"Labor's the biggest expense," says Kathi Martin, the daughter of Stanton Brown and a member of the Windsor Shade cooperative. Martin and her family have a dormitory to house migrant workers who are brought in from Jamaica and Puerto Rico during the harvest season, which begins in early July and lasts through August.
In addition to high labor costs, Connecticut farmers are faced with staggering costs for their tobacco barns. Caribbean casas del tabacos can be built for $40,000, but barns in Connecticut cost $100,000 to $230,000 apiece.
While New England tobacco barns are built more sturdily than their Caribbean counterparts, they're not immune to weather. "In 1979 I lost a bunch of sheds to a tornado," says Brown. Buying seven old barns from a neighbor, dismantling them, and shipping the pieces to his farm was cheaper than rebuilding.
The wooden doors of the drab gray tobacco barn swing open, and a current of hot, humid air escapes. Inside, rows of ripe, green cigar tobacco hang from the rafters, sewn neatly in place on long sticks. They bleed their ammonia into the air as they cure, and the aroma stings a visitor's eyes. On the floor, hooded gas fires burn blue and red, glowing in the dark like a sea of jellyfish near a beach. Within weeks, the tobacco will turn brown, and be moved to a storage facility for aging. Two years or so down the road, they will be wrapped around premium cigars in the Caribbean or Central America.
"This is the Bentley of the whole tobacco business," says Nuñez, looking up at the barn with pride. It's 200 feet long, 40 feet wide and 40 feet high, and can hold three acres of tobacco. It cost more than $100,000 to build. General, one of the largest growers in the valley, will fill more than 125 tobacco barns just like it with shade leaf this year.
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