Tell someone that you’re heading to a tobacco farm, and their response might be to ask if your passport is up to date or simply what country you’re visiting. But to visit a farm that produces a lot of tobacco for a lot of cigars that are found in a lot of humidors, you don’t need a passport, let alone shots or a visit to a currency exchange; all you need is a ticket to Hartford, Conn.
Earlier this year, I was invited to visit Altadis Shade Company’s Gershel Farm in Somers, Conn. during the middle of the tobacco harvest, when the plants are at their fullest, the first primings of leaves are starting to come off the shade-grown tobacco and the sungrown broadleaf is being stalk-cut.
Altadis is the only company with its own tobacco farms in Connecticut, producing both Connecticut broadleaf and Connecticut shade tobacco on several farms scattered between the towns of Enfield and Somers. Both tobaccos have their own unique appeal and history; the milder shade grown was developed by Dutch settlers in the area looking to replicate the tobacco found in Indonesia, while broadleaf has a lot of current appeal due to its bolder flavor and ability to undergo the maduro process.
While the geographic distance between where the two varieties are grown is fairly small, the differences between the two types of tobacco are fairly sizable. From the size of the plants to the weight of the leaves and how they are harvested, it’s two fairly different processes.
Shade grown is produced exclusively for the purposes of making wrapper leaves, and in this case primarily for Altadis’ Montecristo line. It’s also a varietal that is able to be more densely planted, with Altadis achieving around 10,000 plants per acre, as opposed to 7,000-9,000 plants per acre for broadleaf. Part of that is due to the fact that shade grown tobacco grows much taller than broadleaf; upwards of 10 to 12 feet for the former as opposed to under four feet tall for broadleaf. Huge sheets of cheesecloth or a plastic-like netting with small holes that blocks up to 40 percent of the sun’s rays cover the shade grown crop; it also helps trap the heat and helps the plants grow incredibly tall, so tall that they need to be kept straight by having strings tied around them at regular intervals to keep them from tipping over.[ref]To put into context just how different the leaves are in terms of size and weight, the shade wrappers needed to make 1,000 cigars would weigh between 6 and 7 pounds. The broadleaf wrappers needed to make 1,000 cigars would weigh closer to 20 pounds.[/ref]
There’s also a distinct difference in how the leaves are harvested: with shade grown, the leaves are picked in primings, starting at the bottom of the plant and moving upwards over a period of days. Broadleaf is stalk cut, meaning that workers move through rows of tobacco plants with sharp hatchets called hachas, hacking through the stalk with a single swift motion and leaving a trail of wilting tobacco behind them.
But that is just the beginning of the differences when it comes to how the leaves are acquired; shade grown is a much quieter operation, so much so that you can on most mornings you can hear the snap of leaves coming off the plants. It’s calculated and paced, with the leaves being pulled out of each row on rolls of what looked like burlap and transferred into plastic trays. Harvesting broadleaf is closer to controlled chaos, with the supervisor playing the role of traffic cop, directing the teams of workers in the fields to begin or halt cutting down the stalks and calling for more tractors to get to the loading site and pick up the next batch to get it to the curing barn before it risks damange from the sun. There is a ticking clock that is much more prevalent in a broadleaf field than in the sun grown field; while there is no doubt as to the hard work required in both, shade is more measured, steadier and less animated, whereas broadleaf can be hurry-up-and-wait at times, and the looming threat of sun damage to the freshly cut and wilting plants is as pervasive as the sun itself.
Before going any further, I have to stress that it’s hard to recreate the scope of the operation in these photos, let alone how many people are involved just with the farming operation.[ref]There are points on these farms where it is nearly all tobacco for as far as you can see. Second, the manual labor that is part of the process is astounding. There really are very few machines involved in the process. You’ll see some workers in the pictures, but there are many more you won’t, including the farm’s outstanding support staff of mechanics, who service the farm’s dozens of vehicles, from pickup trucks to tractors and school busses.[/ref]
Let’s start with the main farm in Somers, where much of the Connecticut shade grown leaf comes from.
With the shade grown tobacco in the barn, we head a few miles away to one of Altadis’ broadleaf farms. It’s an equally massive operation, but the difference in the plants gives a different impression when I first see it. Whereas shade grown is a tall plant covered by cheesecloth, broadleaf is grown in full sunshine and is much lower, coming up to my belt at most.
Again, it’s hard to put the scope of the entire operation into pictures, from the expansive tobacco fields to the work of hundreds of people working in coordination to execute the first steps that go into getting a premium cigar into your hands.
To put it another way, it’s an incredibly labor-intensive process to make a product intended for relaxation. Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into the process and helps you appreciate just what it takes to make part of the big process happen.