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Connecticut Cigar Tobacco Puts Other Binders In The Shade

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By : Ann Knapp    99 or more times read
Submitted 0000-00-00 00:00:00
There's no doubt about it. Tobacco farming is tough work, with backbreaking hours in hot conditions. Nobody knows that better than the growers and harvesters of so-called "shade tobacco," who make possible a multimillion-dollar industry from rural Connecticut.

Eighteen-hour days, with seven-day weeks from spring to early fall, are the lot of the Connecticut shade tobacco farms, whose main season runs from May to September. Shade tobacco is especially good for cigar wrappers, the tan, smooth-veined leaf in which filler (the tobacco that actually gives the cigar its taste and overall draw) is wrapped. It's the burrito, and the filler is the meat, to use a sloppy metaphor. Connecticut shade tobacco makes a yummy wrapper, so it's no wonder that Davidoff and Arturo Fuente, among many other premium cigar companies, swear by it.

Thanks in part to the current popularity of cigars, shade tobacco (which takes up just 1000 acres of Connecticut farmland) is the fifth-largest crop in the state. It gives farmers more "bang for their buck": that is, vastly more dollars per square foot of field than is available from more conventional agricultural production. And in a time when farmers face every kind of economic hardship, from yields lost to a climate system gone haywire (thanks to global warming) to NAFTA-induced competition, shade tobacco offers another incentive to Connecticut farmers: it doesn't really need to be marketed. After all, there aren't that many places on earth that can grow tobacco of any kind (parts of Central America and southern North America; only patches of Africa, Asia and Europe), so those fancy cigar companies don't have a lot of places to come calling. Less time spent marketing means more time growing the crop that may mean financial success this year, or at least ruin staved off till next year.

But, of course, shade tobacco farmers need every spare minute for the very demanding harvesting of their very demanding crop. The very conditions that make Connecticut an ideal place to grow tobacco, such as its warm summers and excellent soil, also ensure that the thousands of local and migrant workers who manage the area crop every year have their hands full. After all, a good leaf can go bad if it's not cut in time, and with up to fifteen hours of sunlight some days, it becomes hard to get to them all in time. Automation hasn't really become a part of tobacco farming. And that's not even mentioning the equally demanding curing process, which requires constant care of the plants. From May to September, it's fair to say, tobacco farmers don't get much traveling done.

It's also safe to say that the state of Connecticut, whatever its official attitude toward smoking (as outdoor smoking bans become an increasingly popular form of legislation), is grateful to its shade tobacco farmers. They make the state's primary agricultural export. They also pull thirty million dollars a year into the local economy. That's an impressive comeback for an industry that, not long ago, faced ruin.

That ruin was a very real threat as recently as fifteen years ago. Since shade tobacco is most famous for its usefulness as a wrapper, it attracted less interest during the long years when the cigar market in the United States was bottoming out. The "cigar boom" of the 1990s led to a brief resurgence for Connecticut and Massachusetts shade tobacco growers, but with a brown spot fungus epidemic in 2000, real estate speculators buying up areas once used for tobacco cultivation, and farmers began planting Connecticut tobacco seeds in Ecuador (where, thanks to "free trade," you don't have to pay your workers a decent wage).

These days, though, the crop has bounced back ... to the tune of thirty million dollars a year. Perhaps all the backbreaking work is worth it.
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