In northern Connecticut along the Connecticut River a quintessential image of winter is a tobacco barn in the snow. It may be bright red or a lovely weathered wood but either way it is an image of New England that many may think represents a time gone by. Although tobacco has been condemned as a health hazard the growing of tobacco is still a viable agribusiness in many towns in Connecticut, Enfield among them.
Tobacco was already being grown by the native populations when the European settlers arrived in the early 1600s. Within seven years of the town of Windsor’s founding in 1633 tobacco was being produced for both personal use and profit although the majority grown was a variety that originated in the Virginias. The rich sandy soil by the river and the short, hot summers yielded an excellent crop. By 1820 Connecticut Valley tobacco leaves were being used for cigars as the two outside layers, the binder and the wrapper.
The late 19th century saw a variety from Sumatra that began to replace the wrapper from this area. Local farmers created the ‘shade’ conditions that mimicked the sunlight and humidity of Sumatra. 1920 saw a cultivation height of 20,000 acres in the Connecticut River Valley although it is currently just over 2,000 acres. My husband’s great-uncle, Frank Burton, farmed tobacco in South Windsor during the 1930s and 40s. The following images are from a 1938 booklet that he used called ‘Hubbard’s Handybook for Growers’ from the Rogers & Hubbard Co. of Portland, Connecticut:
Tobacco is part of the genus Nicotania from the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, a family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Tobacco mosaic virus is a disease that affects tomatoes and peppers in addition to tobacco. It can be transmitted through the debris of infected plants in the soil or through contamination of smoking materials on workers hands. It has been known to survive up to 50 years in dried plant parts. Avoid using tobacco products while handling or transplanting plants in the solanaceous family. Tomatoes will have foliage that has mottled yellow and green areas, reduced fruit set, dwarfing, and distortion. There is currently no control for TMV.
Another disease that can attack tobacco is blue mold, Peronospora tabacina, a downy mildew disease caused by a fungus-like organism that is highly destructive to seed beds, transplants, and fields. Initially it can be confused with cold injury, malnutrition, or damping off. According to an Enfield tobacco farmer they did not have an issue with blue mold in 2015.
Insect pests of tobacco include aphids, cutworms, flea beetles, snails, slugs, wireworms, budworms, hornworms, and thrips. Many of these insects are common pests of tobacco’s relatives in the solonaceous family. Tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) is vectored by tobacco thrips. Tobacco and tomato hornworms are large caterpillars of the Manduca species that can strip a plant of foliage in a short period of time. As with tomato hornworm, tobacco hornworm can also be parasitized by wasps.
The end of the tobacco growing season is not the end of farmer’s work. Little has changed over the centuries in the way that tobacco is harvested. The entire plant is cut off the stalk at ground level and brought to curing barn by way of slow-moving tractors.
In our neighborhood following a wagonload of newly cut tobacco is a common occurrence.
When the harvested plants reach the barns they are speared through the base in groups of four to six and hung to cure. The curing process allows for the slow oxidation and degradation of the carotenoids in the tobacco leaf that give it the aromas such as sweet hay, tea, rose oil, or fruits when smoked. Starch is converted to sugar which oxidizes into advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), the inhalation of which during smoking contributes to atherosclerosis and cancer.
Air-cured tobacco is allowed to dry in well-ventilated barns over a period of four to eight weeks. Fire-curing takes three days to ten weeks. The tobacco barns used for these methods have openings along the long sides that can be adjusted to control the heat and humidity in the barn during the curing process.
Cured leaves are then sorted for use as filler or wrapper based on their appearance and overall quality and sent on to cigar manufactures.
For over 350 years tobacco has been omnipresent in this area. Many a Connecticut teenager worked on a local tobacco farm and although I never had that experience personally I understand that it was not pleasant work. Currently most tobacco work is done by seasonal employees although their numbers may also dwindle in the future as the land is turned over to more economically viable pursuits such as real estate development. The tobacco barns that dot our landscapes may be no more than curiosities to future generations.
(all images by Susan Pelton)