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.
As Gocaj says, "With shade tobacco, you cannot take short cuts."
I'm getting into a priming groove, when the plants seem to meld together into one. How to tell the second priming from the third? Gocaj has told me to look for the sticky sap spot on the stalk to regain my position. The sap spot signals that the leaf has been freshly picked and that it's time to go to the next stalk. Sap from the leaves clings to my fingers as I press the gooey stump to make sure it is wet. A few twists and tears aside, things go along pretty smoothly for a rookie, and I am done.
All the picking on a shade tobacco farm in Connecticut should be done by September 1, give or take a week. The growing season lasts from approximately mid-May until mid-September. A team of 250 workers can usually clear 50 acres in a day.
It isn't easy work. After going to a huge tank for a huge drink of water, I walk down a dusty dirt path headed for the curing barns and the first stage of the curing process, the next part of my lesson.
SEWING IN THE LEAVES
It is time for thread. Curing barn workers operate huge metal devices that look like old-fashioned sewing machines that string tobacco leaves together instead of clothes. Gocaj tells me that occasionally fingers have been stitched into the machine, along with the leaves. Maybe he is just messing with my head, but he seems serious and the possibility feels quite real.
The machine strings the leaves onto lathes—skinny pieces of flexible wood about two to three feet long. About 24 pairs of leaves fit on a lathe, and it takes about 50 lathes to hang one bundle of tobacco. Gocaj tells me a good threader can do a bundle per hour. Let me tell you...that's fast. The lathe is strung partially like a bow with a length of bakery-style string tied off at one long end. The cord's loose end slips through the eye of a skewer-sized needle. The needle continues horizontally through the machine, pierces through the stems of the leaves and affixes them to the string. But the needle waits for no man—or woman, as many of the threaders are female.
I step up to a bin of waiting leaves and the sewing machine sputters to life. I shove the ends of the stems into a small opening in the machine. The needle passes through with a crunch, piercing the stem. The leaves slide down the string and bob on the lathe. I try to keep up with the needle, grabbing more soft leaves from the bin and placing them flush, stem to stem, taking care not to damage the tobacco. A miss destroys the rhythm, so I try to continue the pace.
Eventually, we have a full lathe. I cannot see how anyone can do 50 in an hour—until I look over to the seasoned workers at the next table who are whizzing through their bins. They probably can sew the plants behind their backs. At least I still have all my digits.
HANGING FROM THE RAFTERS
A tobacco barn can be very peaceful. The one I stand in is roughly the length of a football field, and about half the width. Beams of sunlight poke through slats in the wooden walls. Leaves hang from beams just below the 30-foot-high ceiling. Cross-sectioned in a picturesque alternating arrangement of lush green, they look like dragon scales. The barn is a welcome sojourn from the heat of the fields.
After the threading, I find out how all those leaves get up there.
With full lathes in each hand, I am sent to hang. Keeping with the football field comparison, I stand on the 50-yard line and have to walk to the end zone. My shoulders start to burn on the way. Luckily, I only have to do one load.
Several men in the rafters are aligning lathes end-to-end across the beams, then climbing back down to get the next load from a carrier, and so on. After carrying the lathe down from the threading, I climb into the rafters. Walking across a dusty beam, 30 feet above the floor, while carrying the awkward lathes is a high-wire circus act—clearly not for amateurs. I am assigned the bottom row, which I reach by standing on my tiptoes and stretching.
The curing barn is designed to let moisture leave and reenter the leaves, turning them from green to brown. The full lathes have to be hung with some space between them: if they are bunched too tightly, air won't move through the barn and the leaves will not cure properly.
I struggle to position the lathe correctly. It is not the most cooperative of objects: an error can send a row of lathes crashing to the ground, destroying a group of leaves and forcing a trip back to the
50-yard line. I struggle, and finally prevail. The weight of the leaves causes the lathe to sag slightly in the middle, and dares me to try to give another adjustment.
LET THE CURING BEGIN
Once the barn is full of leaves, the curing starts. General Cigar uses natural gas burners, spread across the length and width of the barn floor, with six to 10 feet of space between each. The barn is very warm but not unbearably hot. It's serene, especially when compared to the commotion of threading and hanging. The temperature is kept in the low 90s, with one-degree increases as the leaves begin to change color.
Fires are always a big concern. A dried-out barn (filled with dried-out leaves) built on a foundation of flammable gas can go up like a Roman candle. All barns are monitored daily and the doors are locked. Even with precautions taken, there have been flare-ups that reduced whole barns to ashes. Nuñez and Gocaj walk through a full barn, seemingly pleased with the peace and quiet, but this is not just a leisurely stroll.
The process is slow, meant to gradually dry the leaves. Heating devices—custom-smelted iron discs about 18 inches in radius—look almost like miniature coffee tables. Hoses connected to a gas pipeline, which runs underground throughout the property, feed the fires that burn beneath them. You can hear gas hissing as you walk though the barn. The discs are meant to disperse the heat through the air evenly. My guides check temperature and humidity gauges. The fires are adjusted according to the stage of the curing.
Curing shade is a monthlong process. The leaves start out green, soon giving way to golden brown patches that begin crawling from the edges of the leaves. The green lightens as chemical reactions progress within the tobacco. In the final stage, the leaves are completely gold and have shriveled, making the barn's ceiling look as if it's covered in tissue paper mobiles. The scent has changed, too, from grassy to rich and earthy with a hint of honey.
I reach up to a fully cured leaf and it crumbles between my fingers. Tobacco can't be moved in this state, so it must be softened for the next step. Touring the farm earlier, we had passed a number of barns that were peculiarly enveloped in what looked like a giant piece of Saran Wrap. The clear, plastic wrap keeps the moisture inside the barn for the final stage of the curing process, when the leaves are rehumidified to make the journey to the rolling tables. The burners are turned off and big atomizing machines are brought in to disperse humidity. The leaves remain in this environment for about a week. After this, the leaves are cleared out of the barn and collected in bails for fermentation.
This brings me to the main warehouse and the final leg of my journey. Fermenting leaves, stacked in large square blocks and wrapped in burlap, are stored here. A thick smell of ammonia pervades the room. Some leaves will stay, waiting to be used in vintage cigars, while other tobacco will take earlier journeys to the rollers' tables.
I was not about to tackle the rolling challenge just yet. Perhaps next time. For now, I was quite content to kick back for a relaxing drive back to New York City with a well-earned and better-appreciated cigar.
Gregory Mottola contributed to this article.