Connecticut tobacco farms are still producing industry-renowned cigar ingredients although pressures including changing consumer tastes, land development, labor shortages and anti-smoking sentiment continue to plague the trade.
One of those changes is the decline in popularity of shade tobacco. Only two Connecticut River Valley farmers planted shade crops this year, according to Brianna Dunlap, director of the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum in Windsor.
O.J. Thrall Inc., a family operation that’s been growing tobacco since 1640, remains in the shade tobacco business, but the depressed market has the Thralls considering selling a portion of their 200-acre Windsor property.
“We’re absolutely not getting out of the business,” said Joe Thrall, a member of the family that owns and runs the farm. “The entire farm is not for sale but we’re willing to listen to offers for some of it. Business is not that good right now.”
Joe’s father, Oliver J. Thrall II, considered a bedrock Connecticut shade tobacco grower, died last year. Inquiries about the farmland are being handled through Randall Koladis, a broker and senior vice president in the Hartford office of CB Richard Ellis – N.E. Partners, LP.
The increasing popularity of Maduro, or dark-wrapper cigars, is decreasing demand for lighter-colored shade tobacco, Dunlap said. Connecticut farmers are increasingly growing broadleaf tobacco, which is used in Maduro cigars. Local farmers also are experimenting more in growing Havana seed leaf due to its popularity, which is expected to grow further with the diplomatic opening to Cuba that will make famed Cuban cigars more readily available to Americans.
The result, Dunlap said, may be a Connecticut industry with zero producers of shade tobacco next year.
“Things are changing very rapidly,” said Dunlap, author of the book “Connecticut Valley Tobacco,” which was due to be released Monday, Sept. 5.
Despite whirling market dynamics, tobacco farmers remain a cornerstone of Connecticut agriculture and the world cigar market.
“They are still a major player,” said Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, a Wethersfield-based association with branches in all eight of the state’s counties.
Tobacco accounts for 10 percent of farm gate sales in Connecticut, putting it in the No. 3 position behind only nursery/plant (50 percent) and dairy (13 percent), Talmage said.
Planting begins in April, a six-week harvest season starts in August, and the plants need to be dried for about two months.
“It is an interesting example of the regional significance of agricultural products,” Talmage said of the local tobacco-growing industry.
Shade tobacco has historically been viewed as prestigious, and as a premium wrapper commanding higher market prices. After being viewed for decades as fit mostly for cigar binding, the bolder-tasting broadleaf is becoming increasingly popular as wrapper among premium cigar smokers and producers, according to Cigar Aficionado reporting.
Use of hand-selected Dark Connecticut Broadleaf Vintage 2010 wrapper was touted by Altadis U.S.A. Inc. in a news release introducing its Henry Clay Tattoo cigar, saying the “oily” wrapper helps make the product a “fuller-bodied, robust cigar.” Altadis’ other brands that use Connecticut broadleaf include Onyx Reserve and Romeo y Julieta Maduro.
Altadis uses Connecticut shade tobacco in its Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta brands. The company’s George Gershel facility in Somers makes Altadis the only remaining manufacturer with its own farm supplying Connecticut shade for its premium brands, according to Mark Smith, an Altadis spokesman whose father-in-law grew up on a tobacco farm in Glastonbury.
The enduring bounty of the Connecticut River is the main reason why Connecticut growers have not transplanted themselves to a lower-cost region, Talmage said.
The river valley’s soil is a key factor in the leaf used in handmade premium cigars produced by Florida-based Altadis and others. Although the Connecticut River extends into Massachusetts and tobacco is also grown there, Connecticut’s broadleaf is better suited for premium cigars, Smith said. Massachusetts leaf is thinner and more suited to mass-market cigars, he said in an email to Crain’s Connecticut.
According to Smith, broadleaf is a more expensive tobacco for manufacturers to handle since the leaves are large, which can lead to a lot of waste. The leaves also are heavy, which means there are few leaves per pound, Smith said. Shade leaves are smaller than those of broadleaf.
One of the most difficult problems facing tobacco farmers is finding laborers, which forces farms to turn to a guest worker program.
In meetings with legislators, the farm bureau has supported tobacco growers on guest worker requests as well as crop insurance, Talmage said. The bureau has a tobacco advisory committee and works with trade associations.
Most of the public is unaware of the Connecticut tobacco industry’s “strong, quality position” in the worldwide landscape, he said.
“It’s very specialized,” Talmage said. “The growing conditions have to be just right.”
Most of Connecticut’s tobacco land is within the Interstate 91 corridor, which has become increasingly developed. The land’s flat and sandy terrain makes it easily developable, said Jim Burke, economic development director for Windsor, which is the central town in the state’s tobacco row.
The tobacco industry holds historic value for Windsor, including the museum at 135 Lang Road, although its ongoing direct economic impact is “not huge,” Burke said. He characterized the impact, including spending by farm families and laborers, as being more “indirect.”
Connecticut is No. 8 among states in tobacco production, according to 2012 statistics on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website. The state’s $35.7 million in value of sales by commodity is responsible for that ranking.
In 1925, when Connecticut tobacco production was at its height, 30,000 acres were in cultivation, according to the museum’s website, which is maintained by Dunlap and the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society. Today, the amount is about 2,000 acres.
Connecticut River Valley farmers have been growing large amounts of tobacco since the early 1800s. A type known as shoestring was replaced by broadleaf and Havana seed leaf, the museum says on its website. Attempts to thwart competition from a wrapper imported from Sumatra led to the famous shade tents that have dotted the Windsor area for more than a century. The Sumatra leaf was matched through making a hybrid plant and using tents to reduce sunlight and boost humidity. The first shade tobacco tent was set up on River Street in Windsor in 1900, the museum website says. The tents are still visible today to motorists driving to and from Bradley International Airport.
The museum designates 1953 as the year when Connecticut’s tobacco industry began its decline. The invention of homogenized cigar wrapper decreased the need for Connecticut River Valley leaf to bind and wrap cigars. Eleven years later, the U.S. surgeon general’s report on the dangers of smoking also hurt growers’ fortunes, the museum says.
The percentage of Connecticut residents that smoke cigars was 6 percent in 2014, according to Jennifer Solomon, a spokeswoman for the Northeast branch of the American Lung Association, which has an office in East Hartford.
Cigarette smoking among adults in Connecticut was 15.4 percent in 2014, according to state Department of Health data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the adult cigarette-smoking rate at 15.9 percent for 2010, ranking Connecticut eighth among states, with rates that ranged from 9.3 percent to 26.5 percent. Connecticut was No. 10 among states six years ago with a smoking mortality rate of 238.8 per 100,000 residents, CDC statistics show.