Harvesting Broadleaf Wrapper Tobacco in Connecticut
By Fred Lunt with additional material by Gary Korb
It’s not often that one gets to explore the very depths of where and how a product is made. When it’s a generic product the experience may be underwhelming; but when you’re in the fields watching an 8 ft. tall tobacco plant being hacked-down at its base with a hatchet, it’s pretty exciting. Every year, Altadis USA invites small groups of cigar retailers to Western Connecticut to witness the arduous task of harvesting thousands of pounds of U.S.-grown Connecticut tobacco, and this year Cigar Advisor Executive Editor Gary Korb and myself travelled to watch the process at the Altadis Shade Company George Gershel Farm.
A Brief History in Connecticut Tobacco
Connecticut tobacco is as American as you can get. When the early settlers came to the town of Windsor, CT in the early 1600s, the Native Americans had already been cultivating the coveted crop for generations. By 1633 the town had been established and the cash crop was quickly catching on as Virginian tobacco seeds were brought up for pipe tobacco. By the late 1800s, cigars were the more fashionable smoke and growing Broadleaf became a full-time job for farmers. By 1900 the first shade growing facilities were taking off, launching shade grown tobacco to be the highest grossing crop for the entire state. By 2007 shade tobacco alone brought in $30 million on just 1,000 acres of land. In recent years, U.S. Connecticut Shade has taken a backseat to Ecuadorian-grown Connecticut-seed Shade, or Ecuadorian Connecticut, leaving Connecticut farmers to focus on producing more Broadleaf.
Wined & Dined
Invited by our friendly neighborhood Altadis Sales Rep, Tim Person, Gary and I trekked the 3-hour drive to a hotel in the very scenic Springfield, MA (no Simpsons were to be found). Gary and I found ourselves warmly greeted by Oliver Hyams, Trade and Marketing Manager for Altadis USA. After a brief tour of the town, we got ourselves cleaned up and headed toward the bus for a night out.
Our group consisted of Altadis’ Tim Person, Charlie Watson, Oliver Hyams, and Raphael Nodal’s son Raphael Jr., as well as other shop owners from the Midwest and East Coast. After a round of friendly handshakes, we were set for some wining and dining. Many a cocktail and craft beer (and cigars of course) were to be had at Max’s Tavern, a swanky up-scale restaurant located directly next to the Basketball Hall of Fame, where we gorged on delicious steak dinners which, all totaled, probably equated to an entire steer.
Planting the Tobacco
Now, for the meat of this trip. After a continental breakfast at the hotel, we were presented with a slideshow detailing the nitty-gritty of growing and harvesting Connecticut Broadleaf Wrapper and Shade Grown tobaccos.
All of us also received a nice sampler pack featuring cigars that sport the Broadleaf wrapper grown at the Altadis Shade Farm, along with some of their other cigars:
Following the presentation, we hopped on the bus that would take us to the sleepy town of Somers, CT where tobacco grows like weeds (actually, tobacco is a type of weed). We were greeted by Brandon, the owner and manager of the farm who politely handed us another Montecristo White Vintage Torpedo.
The Gershel farm uses a total of 80 acres and can grow up to 8,000 plants per acre. The seeding process starts in March, using a seed bedding machine that Brandon demonstrated for us. A tray holding 96 pods is loaded into the machine while the seeds are loaded at the top and compressed inside. The seeds themselves are so tiny that they need a small coating of pink clay to make them more visible. These potting trays are stacked 10 high before being moved to a more comfortable position in the greenhouse where they will remain for about 56 days. One stack of potting sheets can create 40 acres worth of tobacco; however, as germination isn’t a sure thing, they can realistically expect to have 35 acres worth of tobacco from one greenhouse alone. Before planting, at about 60 days of growth, the baby tobacco plants are 5-8 inches tall and undergo treatment inside the greenhouses with bee-friendly insecticides. Brandon told us that he’ll bring ladybugs onto the farm to eat away destructive bugs.
The process of planting hasn’t changed much since the early days of tobacco growing. In fact, much of the machinery they use is at least 30+ years old, including the plant laying machine (I’m not sure what the technical term is). Basically, it’s a small tractor with a large tank of water, five seats for workers (including cigar holders of course), and a feeding platform. The machine combs over the freshly tilled soil, drops the fresh little seedlings into the ground, and waters them. These Broadleaf plants will grow as much as an inch a day and can attain a height of up to 10 feet in some cases. Brandon explained that while it’s important for the plants to grow, they need to be topped after 50 days to prevent “suckers,” small leafy growths that appear on the stalks. The process of removing the suckers and the flowering tops is referred to as “topping” the plants. This is an essential and labor intensive process that keeps the plant hardy and healthy. Otherwise, the suckers and flowers will divert energy and nutrients away from the leaves of the plant, resulting in inferior tobacco that won’t make the cut for Broadleaf wrapper quality.
One additional note of interest Brandon imparted to us was that tobacco responds better to drier weather than wet. So, when the region was hit with a drought in 2016, it resulted in a bumper crop of Broadleaf wrapper for the farm. This year saw more rain, but they are still expecting a high yield.
Harvesting Broadleaf Wrapper Tobacco
After having had our fill of topping some of the plants ourselves and enjoying our Monte’s, we were taken to a neighboring field where the actual harvesting was already taking place. There we met farm manager, Edwin Rodriguez, who oversees both the harvesting and curing process. Once tiny saplings, the harvested plants are now eight-foot tall monsters, having been in the fields for nearly 70 days and are ready to move on.
While not all Broadleaf wrapper is stalk cut, the farm we visited uses the stalk cut method, and boy what a sight. A four-man (and woman) team hacks down the plants at their base with hatchets. It all goes like clock-work: behind the hatchet wielders is another group of 4-8 workers picking up the leaves and bunching them together, who then hand them off to another man who punches each stalk through a nail on the wooden lathe. The leaves are hung six to a lathe and suspended on a rack that is attached to a trailer. Once the trailer is full, the load is driven to the curing barn as another tractor rolls in to take its place.
Edwin stressed the fact that once cut, the plants need to be collected and out of the sun before noon or they will begin to burn; otherwise, they will not cure properly. The average time it takes the team to harvest one-and-a-half acres of Broadleaf? About 6 hours.
Curing the Leaf
While nearly every aspect of cigar making is important- curing is at the top of the list. It’s the process of literally hanging the leaves to dry, effectively removing the moisture and chlorophyll from the leaves as they slowly turn from bright green to earthy brown in color. To do curing right, a perfect balance of humidity and temperature is required, and maintaining the right temperature during a Connecticut Fall can be grueling. While 45-50 days is ideal, the process is only truly completed when the tobacco is ready to be shipped to factories in Central America for fermentation.
The whole process looks like something most trapeze artists would be afraid to do – workers climbing up and down 40 ft. tall barns and hauling 50lb poles of tobacco with them. The six-man barn team works tirelessly to get all of the tobacco hung in its new temporary home. The tobacco poles are hung in two tiers of four rows; the top rows are spaced at the upper 20 ft. of the barn while the lower tiers have 18 ft. of space. Once hung, the plants are sprayed to prevent the dreaded enemy, the tobacco beetle, from infesting the plants. To maintain proper air flow, the barns are built with adjustable slats that swing out from the barn walls. When low temperatures become an issue, the team uses propane burners to heat things up. Edwin did a quick demonstration with the burners to show how his team places 80 burners throughout the barn. Each burner is about the size of a sewer grate cap and will burn for up to 12 hours a day. If the temperature gets too low it can freeze the curing process and cause the leaves to retain their chlorophyll, which is actually how candela (light green) wrappers are cured.
By the time the curing process is complete the tobacco leaves will have lost most of their moisture and weight, noted by the fact that poles will now come down more easily, two at a time. The stalks are pulled off the lathes and the lower primings, called stemmings, are set aside while the Viso, Seco, and Ligero are laid out on plastic sheets and prepped to ship out to Altadis’ factory in the Dominican Republic where they are fermented and aged.
To keep the soil healthy and loose after the tobacco harvest is completed, Brandon said they grow clover and Asian radishes in the fields. The clover adds nitrogen to the soil while the radishes (displayed by an arm gesture), which grow about 3-4 feet in length, are perfect for aerating the soil and penetrating the hardpan below.
By now, it was a sweltering 92 degrees out and our stomachs were starting to make whale-like sounds. Just in time, Tim, Oliver, and the rest of the gang brought us back to the farm house for a full spread of barbeque, and of course, more Altadis-made cigars – thus concluding our trip to the Connecticut tobacco fields.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit a tobacco farm, we highly recommend it. Moreover, you might want to visit a cigar factory in Central America, too. In any event, there’s nothing like the feeling an avid cigar smoker gets by seeing how his or her precious primos are actually born and raised.