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One Tough Leaf

Dark cigars are hot, and that calls for dark, rugged Connecticut broadleaf
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 2)

Broadleaf lives up to its name. The plants grow some of the biggest leaves in the cigar world, some more than two and a half feet long. One of the secrets to the size is topping, the process of removing the flower of the plant while it is growing.

Farmers pluck the broadleaf flowers (which contain tobacco seeds) when the plant has sprouted from 12 to 14 leaves. Once the flower is picked, the plant will stop growing new leaves, but the ones that are on the plant will be kicked into overdrive. Now, all the plant's energies will be devoted to growing the leaves, rather than reproduction. (Most shade tobacco farmers leave the flowers on to keep their leaves thin.)

This year, according to Dunn, farmers planted more than 2,000 acres of broadleaf in the valley, down from the 2,400 acres planted in 1999. "That was the biggest crop in recent years," says Dunn, even though it doesn't come close to the 18,400 acres planted at the valley's peak, in 1925, according to Growing Tobacco in Connecticut. Dunn recalls how in his youth tobacco barns covered the valley; many have been torn down, replaced by housing developments, golf courses and the like.  

Despite being down from record levels, the acreage of the past few years is more than double a typical planting of the early 1990s, when fewer than 1,000 acres of Connecticut broadleaf were grown. Before the mid-1990s, "this business was dead for about 30 years," says Dunn.  

The word "Connecticut" in the tobacco's name refers to the valley, not the state. The Connecticut River Valley runs north from Hartford, Connecticut, through the middle of Massachusetts, and touches the Vermont/New Hampshire border. More than half of the broadleaf tobacco planted here is in Massachusetts.  

The quality of this year's broadleaf crop won't approach last year's. In the summer of 1999, the valley turned into a blast furnace as a heat wave swept the northeastern United States; it was the perfect atmosphere for growing tobacco. Tobacco loves heat, and 1999 provided it aplenty, resulting in tall, proud plants.  

This year is a different story. The 2000 growing season had an ominous beginning, with cool weather that stunted plant growth; many plants still hugged the ground as late as mid-July. But at the time no one was concerned. "We say August makes tobacco," says Nuñez.  

August was a disaster. Rain returned in force to Connecticut, along with unseasonably cool temperatures--ideal weather for blue mold, the bane of tobacco growers. An outbreak of blue mold can tear through a tobacco field in a day, turning once-vibrant plants into withered zombies.  

As the rain fell and the mercury dropped, broadleaf growers began to spray in hopes of preventing the mold. Most of them staved off the fungus, only to have their plants fall victim to another pest: brown spot.  

"The whole Connecticut valley has a problem this year," says Thomas Fraize, a supervisor at Waldron Farms, a Connecticut broadleaf operation. By mid-August, Fraize had lost his entire 36-acre plot to brown spot.  

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