By Gregory B. Hladky
8:25 AM EST, November 28, 2012
Eighteen months. That's the amount of time it can take between the moment a leaf of premium Connecticut shade-grown tobacco is picked and the day the farmer who grew it gets paid.
In between, that leaf is handled with delicate care: hung to be cured in an old-fashioned shed; humidified; bundled; transported to a "sweat room" in a cooperative warehouse in Windsor Locks; dampened once again; and carefully packaged and shipped to the Dominican Republic.
There it gets sorted, graded, inspected, and finally purchased by a buyer from a big cigar maker, which will eventually use that leaf to wrap a fine cigar that you might pay $15 for at New Haven's Owl Shop, or perhaps the leaf might be used at a trendy cigar-rolling party in midtown Manhattan or a golf course here in Connecticut.
Ana Perez, who has wrapped cigars at some of those posh events for an outfit called Cigar Dolls, calls Connecticut leaf tobacco "almost perfect" and the only wrapper leaf she likes to use.
"Wrapper grown in Connecticut is very expensive," explains Joe Lentine, a master tobacconist who's been working at The Owl Shop for the past 48 years.
In fact, Connecticut shade-grown tobacco is still one of the most expensive agricultural commodities in the world.
At Leaf Only, a tobacco-marketing operation in Middletown, they're advertising a special on "limited quantities" of Connecticut shade leaf, just $54.99 a pound. But they warn that price is subject to change since very little of that very exclusive product is available to be sold as wrapper leaf in its home state.
Less than 900,000 pounds of shade tobacco was harvested in 2011, according to federal agricultural statisticians.
Tom Crockett, who's been working at Mulnite Farms' tobacco-growing operation in East Windsor for "at least 55 years," explains that getting a leaf of shade tobacco from seed to cigar can be a damned frustrating and risky process.
This year was a pretty good year for most Connecticut tobacco growers, says Crockett, who is general manager at Mulnite Farms. ("My mother was a Mulnite," he explains with a laugh.)
Well, it was a pretty good year unless your crop was devastated by the potato virus. Turns out that virus is transmitted by aphids, and it may have been made worse this year because we had such a mild winter. Some growers in places like Suffield and up in the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut River Valley ended up destroying their crops because of that stinking virus, Crockett says.
Virtually all of New England's tobacco is grown in the rich bottom lands along the Connecticut River. If you've ever flown in or out of Bradley International Airport or driven along some of the valley's back roads and passed fields covered with acres of white sheeting, that's what provides the shade for this very exclusive crop.
The covering is supposed to duplicate the tropical shady conditions where this type of tobacco was originally grown. The shade protects the leaves which, when not damaged, are eventually used to wrap costly cigars with names like "Hammer & Sickle," or "Arturo Fuente."
Crockett, 72, explains that the huge amount of trouble you have to take to grow a shade tobacco crop has convinced some Connecticut farmers that it simply isn't worth it.
Almost everything to do with shade tobacco is labor intensive, and most of that hand work is done by skilled migrant workers that come up from Jamaica and other Caribbean and Central American countries. You can't have just anyone pick or handle shade tobacco, because a damaged leaf might be worth only one-fiftieth the price a perfect leaf might fetch.
All shade tobacco grown in this state ends up being sent to a warehouse owned by Windsor Shade Tobacco Co., a cooperative of Connecticut growers located (appropriately enough) in Windsor. That's where the leaves spend about 30 days inside "sweat rooms," where the temperature is kept at more than 100 degrees with very high humidity.
"The tobacco ferments," according to Crockett. "It heats up and all the colors change." From Windsor, the bales of carefully moistened leaves are sent to ports in New York, New Jersey or Philadelphia for transport via ships to the Dominican Republic for sorting and grading.
"There are about 20 grades of shade tobacco," Crockett says. Leaves are judged on their length, color, texture, and even whether they are "right" or "left" leaves.
Only grades 1 (the absolute best), 2 and 3 are used for wrappers, according to Crockett. And almost none of the leaves that are harvested will end up being graded No. 1, says Crockett: "One or two percent would be tops."
He says something like 70 percent of the shade tobacco leaves from Connecticut are graded No. 3s, and are worth perhaps two-thirds of the value of a top graded leaf. "The real junk is worth about two percent of what a No. 1 leaf would be," he adds, and says those damaged or discolored leaves end up as the filler or inner "binder" of cigars where their flaws will be covered up by the actual leaf wrapper.
"The greens aren't worth as much as the browns," Crockett points out, and longer leaves are worth more than shorter ones. "It's a horrendous system," he says, noting that all the prices are set by the buyers.
Virtually all Connecticut-grown shade tobacco is bought up by the British-based giant of the industry, Imperial Tobacco Group, which is the world's largest cigar maker.
Shade tobacco is so freaking tough to grow and cure that it represents less than a third of all the tobacco grown in Connecticut. In 2011, according to the latest federal report, about 2.16 million pounds of broadleaf tobacco was harvested here.
Broadleaf is grown out in the open, cured in those long red tobacco sheds you see scattered through the Connecticut River Valley countryside, and is actually purchased right here. The buyers come to the farms, check the quality of the broadleaf after it's harvested, and make their purchase on the spot.
Most Connecticut broadleaf is also used for wrapping what Crockett calls "those little backwoods cigars."
"They make some good broadleaf cigars," he adds quickly, "but they're nowhere near the price of the shade cigars."
John Wallace, one of the owners of Leaf Only in Middletown, says Connecticut tobacco in leaf form is not one of his company's biggest sellers, in part because most of it is snapped up by the major cigar makers. "We probably sell about 2,000 pounds a year," he says, "sometimes more, sometimes less."
The people buying Connecticut tobacco from Wallace's operation include small, boutique cigar companies as well as individuals. One reason smokers are interested in buying whole-leaf tobacco is that the state doesn't tax it the way it does other forms of tobacco.
"They save money because there is no tax on whole-leaf tobacco," says Wallace. "It's considered an agricultural commodity until processed into an actual product."
Rolling your own cigars has become something of a chic hobby. "That's a growing market," Wallace says.
Some wealthy aficionados are now enjoying Connecticut shade-wrapped cigars hand-rolled by good-looking young women at posh parties, weddings and restaurant events.
Perez, of Cigar Dolls, has been working those sorts of cigar parties for more than two years, including several here in Connecticut. Those have ranged from a party a big financial company threw for its employees to a golf tournament in East Haddam.
Born in Cuba, Perez came to America with her family and learned cigar wrapping from her dad. And she says she's always preferred to use Connecticut tobacco leaves.
"It's delicate and easy to work with," Perez says. "Visually there are no imperfections… It's more pliable and you can have your way with them. It's kind of a dance I do with the Connecticut tobacco leaves."
She says most of the people who go to these cigar parties are older, well-to-do men who enjoy having a young woman expertly roll their cigars right in front of them. But there are also younger types who often show up at the wedding events she's worked, and they look on these specialty cigars as "more of a novelty item," according to Perez.
But it's not always just men who light up the cigars that Perez rolls by hand. "If there are women in the crowd, there's always one or two who are game to try it," she says.
And even as those parties are happening, the dudes back in Connecticut who actually grew those leaves may still be waiting to be paid for their trouble.
"If there's any profit," Crockett says of the predicament of shade tobacco growers, "it doesn't come for a long, long time."
Ken Horton, a Glastonbury farmer, in 2011, with his crop. (John Woike photo/Hartford Courant)
Migrant workers pick and load the tobacco leaves onto a waiting truck at Enfield Shade Tobacco in Enfield, Conn., Aug. 29, 2000. Enfield Shade, which produces the outer wrapper for premium cigars, contracts with the state Labor Department to find its seasonal work force. Migrant workers come north in April for planting and stay through the summer, tending the fields. (AP Photo/Manchester Journal Inquirer, Leslloyd Alleyne, Jr.)
HF Brown Inc., also known as Browns Harvest, is a family owned Shade Tobacco farm in Windsor since the 1850's. Dayne Watson, a Jamaican worker who came up under the H2A contract, works to strip and pack tobacco in one of the barns. (Photo by Richard Messina/Hartford Courant)
Joe Melendi is helping the Hartford Club open a new cigar bar. Melendi is also helping the club host a "Longest Initial Ash" contest on August 23. Here, he holds a Domenican Romeo and Julietta cigar in the club's grill room. (Tia Ann Chapman photo/Hartford Courant)
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