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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Connecticut tobacco barns are entirely different animals than Caribbean barns. Thatched roofs are fine for Cuba, where January temperatures can be 80 degrees, but outside of Hartford it's not uncommon for a foot of snow to fall in a Yankee storm. Connecticut barns can take a beating, so they sport roofs made of asphalt shingles. Yankee hinges-- long, narrow boards running vertically and hinged at the top--can be swung open to lower the temperature when needed. Gas burners create tropical conditions inside a barn to help the curing process. Workers known as firemen must be on hand 24 hours a day to watch the flames, and at night they often eat roast chicken and vegetables that they placed atop the burners in the afternoon. It's a labor-intensive, job that hasn't changed much in 100 years.
The Connecticut River Valley was immortalized in the 1961 film Parrish, which starred Troy Donahue as an ambitious young man trying to make a living working on a Connecticut-shade tobacco farm. An evil tobacco baron played by Karl Malden gets in his way. (Even in a movie about growing cigar tobacco, only the villain regularly chomps cigars.) In an early scene, a tie-wearing Donahue walks up to a woman working in a tobacco seedbed. "Why don't you plant 'em right in the field?" he asks. A violin kicks in as the woman answers. "It's too delicate. Tobacco's like a baby," she says. "It never leaves you alone, and you can't leave it alone."
There's far less tobacco in the ground today than there was when Parrish was filmed. Growing reached its peak in 1921, when 30,800 acres of shade a year were planted in the valley, according to Bade. In those days the growing region stretched from Portland, Connecticut, all the way up to Brattleboro, Vermont. The shade tents seemed to go on forever, as if some giant had wrapped most of the valley with bright white cloth, like a Christmas present. "It was the second largest industry in Connecticut, behind insurance," says George Gershel, senior vice president of tobacco for Consolidated Cigar.
In the days when the United States was still a major producer of handmade cigars, Connecticut supplied much of its wrapper. The creation of homogenized, or sheet, tobacco wrapper in the 1950s ushered in the decline of the valley. Sheet tobacco is the particle board of the industry, a mixture of chopped scrap tobacco and an adhesive, which is extruded into a sheet that can be cut to any size.
Cigarmakers switched to sheet wrapper on many brands to cut costs, and that cut into the plantings of natural wrapper. Expensive real estate once covered by tobacco plants gave way to businesses, houses and golf courses. The decline that began with the invention of sheet continued as cigar smoking waned in popularity.
Consolidated Cigar, which once grew 2,600 acres of Connecticut shade (1,800 on its own land, and 800 acres under contract) pulled out in 1981, as it moved to sheet tobacco for some of its nonpremium cigars. "There was a period in the 1980s, when it went down to 700, 800 acres of shade in the valley," says Merwin Brown, another member of the family.
The cigar boom has led to an increase in the plantings of Connecticut shade, but barn prices and limited amounts of available real estate have kept the rate of increase much smaller than in the Caribbean. This year, about 2,000 acres were planted, compared with about 1,600 in 1992, prior to the boom. The biggest growers are Windsor Shade, whose members planted an estimated 750 acres in 1999, and General Cigar, which planted more than 400 acres. In 1998, Consolidated returned to the valley, and today it plants a modest 150 acres a year. One day, Folz hopes to use it on his Montecristo cigars, among others. No verdict can be rendered on tobacco until it has been cured and aged, but the growers in the valley are optimistic about the 1999 harvest. They like what they see, and believe they might be sitting on a bumper crop.
In Bloomfield, Nuñez is walking through one of General's fields. He is almost lost in the sea of green, dwarfed by nine- to 10-foot plants that are reaching for the tents above, as his shoulders are caressed by the soft tobacco that brushes against him as he walks.
Nuñez pauses, droplets of sweat sparkling on his forehead. He takes a wide, green leaf of Connecticut shade in his hands and peers at its shiny face. It seems virtually flawless, full of life and the energy of the sun.
"I don't think I've ever had it better than this," he says.
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