Connecticut Yankees are a no-nonsense, superstitious lot, and that tradition lives strong inside the tobacco barns lining the Connecticut River Valley.
"We don't have a touch of blue mold this year," says Stanton Brown, the patriarch of H.F. Brown Inc., which planted its first Connecticut-shade crop in 1938. The word mold is fresh on Brown's lips as he looks behind him for a thick beam of wood, which he knocks several times with his knuckles. The tall man, his face hidden well by a weather-beaten baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, peers down at a visitor. "We don't count anything until it's in the shed."
Brown is standing in the gloom of a hot tobacco barn. The leaves of Connecticut shade hanging above him are considered by many to be the finest cigar tobacco in the world. Connecticut shade is wrapped around Macanudo, Davidoff, Montecristo, Ashton and Fonseca cigars, among many others.
Cigarmakers say aficionados buy with their eyes, and nothing seems to draw them in like oily, golden-brown Connecticut shade. "I would estimate that 50 percent of the handmade cigars sold [in the United States] are made with Connecticut-shade tobacco," says Theo W. Folz, the president and chief executive officer of Consolidated Cigar Corp.
The Connecticut River Valley tobacco region, which stretches north from Hartford, Connecticut, across the border into Massachusetts, had been free of blue mold for 19 years when an outbreak struck with a vengeance in 1997. The next year it reappeared. The voracious fungus is the bane of cigar tobacco, capable of destroying a field overnight. In the past two growing seasons the quiet sound of workers snapping off thick, ripe leaves was replaced by the roar of bulldozers plowing under fields infected with the fungus.
"The crop was very poor last year, probably the worst ever," says John Oliva Sr., the president of Oliva Tobacco Co., which grows tobacco around the world. "I don't think there's been much money made in Connecticut over the last two crops."
Blue mold thrives in cool, damp weather. Carried aloft by winds, it's a regular threat to burley tobacco farmers in the southern United States. Recently a National Enquirer-style news clip described blue mold invading from Cuba, as if the Bearded One himself were standing atop the Malecón, blowing spores toward America like a child holding a dandelion. Regardless of where the 1998 outbreak came from, cigarmakers and tobacco growers alike say it caused farmers to harvest earlier than usual, resulting in a greenish crop that will taste of youth when it's finally smoked.
"Last year was the worst that I ever had," says Angel Daniel Nuñez, 48, the senior vice president of tobacco for General Cigar Holdings Inc. Nuñez has worked at General for 25 years. The company is one of the oldest cigar growers in the valley; the Cullman family, which controls General, planted its first Connecticut tobacco crop in 1906. General is a rarity in the business, a large cigarmaker that grows its own Connecticut shade. It makes enough to wrap all of its Macanudo cigars and sells wrapper to other cigarmakers in the Caribbean and in Europe.
The 1999 shade harvest has been blessedly better than in years past. The record-high temperatures this summer that made the eastern United States swelter kept the fungus to a minimum (some growers reported isolated outbreaks of mold in late July, which was checked by applications of fungicide) and was fueling a big, high-quality crop. "Tobacco really loves that kind of hot, humid weather," says Nuñez. He looks proudly at a plant, whose wide leaves are reaching for the sunlight above the tents. "When the tobacco smiles," says Nuñez, "you can see it."
The uninitiated are amazed that cigar tobacco grows so far north of the Caribbean, but native Americans grew tobacco in Connecticut before the arrival of Europeans, and historians say locals have grown cigar tobacco there since the 1600s. Tobacco is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world. Seedlings a few inches tall are placed in the soil in May, and by Independence Day the plants will have soared to nine feet. By the end of August, when the final priming is harvested, a Connecticut-shade tobacco plant might stand 12 feet tall.
The soil around the valley is silty, the product of glaciers that scraped the northeastern part of America as they crept down from the Arctic. People have planted Connecticut seeds in various parts of the world--Ecuador, Honduras, even Canada--but only tobacco grown in this small valley looks and tastes like true Connecticut shade.
"A lot of people mistake Connecticut-seed tobacco grown in other parts of the world for Connecticut shade," says Brown. "But Connecticut shade is only grown in the Connecticut River Valley."
The first Connecticut tobacco was grown in the open sunlight, which makes a leaf thick and dark, with veins like ropes. That variety is called Connecticut broadleaf, a brawny tobacco known for its heavy flavor and less than elegant appearance. Today, broadleaf is used on brands such as Henry Clay, on many maduro varieties of premium cigars and on a host of cigars made by machine, which include Muniemakers, Backwoods, Marsh Wheelings and Toppers.
Marion Nielsen, curator of the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum in Windsor, says, "Prior to 1900, they just grew broadleaf tobacco in Connecticut. In Sumatra, they were growing this beautiful plant that was ruining our trade, and farmers went over and brought back Sumatra seed. But when they grew it, the leaves burned in the sun." Someone noticed that the growing season in Sumatra was overcast--compared with the bright, sunny weather typical of a Connecticut summer--so farmers erected cheesecloth tents to cover the fields and shield the tobacco from the direct rays of the sun.
"The first tents went up on River Road in the Poquonock section of Windsor in 1900," says Nielsen. The result was extraordinary: the leaves grew thin and supple, with barely noticeable veins. When cured and aged, the leaf turned golden brown and oily. Most experts say that was the origin of shade tobacco, which today is also grown in Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
"Connecticut," Oliva says emphatically, "was a pioneer in shade tobacco. Not a doubt."
The term shade is a bit of a misnomer. Walking under the cheesecloth tents in the middle of summer isn't like taking shelter under a Caribbean palm. While the tents filter out direct sunlight, they raise the heat, and sweat blossoms on a visitor's forehead five steps under the tents. The air inside is heavy, hot and humid. Farmers say that when the temperature hits the upper 90s, as it did this summer for weeks at a time, their plants can grow two to four inches in a single day. You can almost hear them creak upwards, pushing against the tents.
The shade protecting the tobacco works in two ways. The synthetic cloth above (it was made of cotton in the early days) shelters tobacco leaves from the sunlight. Cloth on the side of the tents keep insects away from the tobacco. Every plant is tied with a string, ensuring that it grows straight, even in the wind. The process of draping the fields, tying the plants and coddling the leaves makes farming Connecticut shade an expensive endeavor.
Wrapper is the most expensive type of tobacco, and no wrapper costs more to grow than Connecticut shade. "It's the most expensive, most labor intensive, most risky type of tobacco to plant," says Folz. The highest-grade shade tobacco from Honduras retails for around $20 to $25 a pound, while top-quality Connecticut wrappers sell for $45 to $50 a pound.
The perils of growing wrapper can make crystal chandelier juggling look easy. Rain can stain a leaf; so can blossom rot, which occurs when parts of a flower fall on a leaf and decompose. (Tobacco plants in Connecticut, unlike those on other wrapper plantations around the world, are not topped, or removed of their flower.) A worker or visitor who nudges a plant while walking through the crowded rows can do all kinds of damage, as can hail or a windstorm.
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.
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.