SOUTHWICK, Mass. — They’re among the lucky few, John, Fred and Dave Arnold. There’s a good supply of crisp broadleaf tobacco drying in their 14 curing sheds and during the next couple of weeks they will be pulling it down, bundling it up and selling it for the best price they can get. Pretty much what their family has done every year since the 1830s in the Connecticut River Valley.
There is no better place in America to grow broadleaf and shade tobacco, the kinds used for premium cigar wrappers and binders. But these are troubled times along New England’s own tobacco road, about 75 miles straddling western Massachusetts and Connecticut.
A disastrous growing season plagued by crop viruses, combined with sagging cigar sales, has left many growers reeling.
For the Arnold brothers, it wasn’t the greatest year, but it could have been much worse. Their farm could have been almost anywhere else in the valley.
“We were south enough to avoid the problems of the farmers north of us and we were north enough to avoid the problems of the farmers south of us,” Dave Arnold said.
Most of the problems, anyway. The Arnolds’ business partner, John Coward, says not all the leaves are as thick as buyers might want them, a byproduct of persistent early season rains. He points to some leaves that bear greenish-yellow splotches along their veins, a telltale sign of disease that ravished the crop elsewhere in the valley.
Leaves like those won’t be wrapper quality, Coward knows. Certainly not for some of the finest and most expensive cigars in the world, which is what they’re grown for in the first place. But he is philosophical.
“Maybe not the best crop we’ve ever had,” he said. “But it beats insurance.” While most tobacco farmers carry some type of crop insurance, it’s rarely enough to cover their losses.
Broadleaf and shade tobacco have been grown successfully in the Connecticut River Valley since pre-Colonial times, yet even farmers are hard-pressed to explain what makes the valley so unique for this crop. The climate, it seems, is just right and the soil is light and easily drainable.
International competition comes from growers in several other countries, including Sumatra, Honduras, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.
Tobacco sheds, or barns, are hulking yet oddly graceful structures that have dotted the valley’s rural landscape for generations. Many now stand abandoned and decaying, silent testament to a vanishing era.
While the acreage devoted to tobacco in the valley has been declining for more than a half century, the cigar bar craze of the 1990s rekindled demand for premium, handmade cigars and brought record prices. The market has long since cooled off.
Norman Stein, executive director of the Cigar Association of America, said about 271 million premium, handcrafted cigars like those wrapped with Connecticut River Valley tobacco were sold in 2008 in the U.S., about 5 percent of all large-cigar sales. About 334 million premium cigars, or 9 percent, were sold in 1998.
While there are still more premium cigar smokers than before the cigar bar craze, “cigar smoking remains very much an occasional pastime,” Stein said.
If market pressures weren’t enough, nature dealt growers a punishing blow in 2009.
A stew of viruses carrying names such as potato virus-y, tobacco etch, and tobacco mottling virus attacked the plants, ruining the leaves.
The viruses, which appeared in the past but not to this extent, likely wintered in uncultivated potatoes, transmitted to tobacco by tiny aphids that feed on both, said Dr. James LaMondia, chief scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in Windsor, Conn.
“I’ve seen bad years but this is probably the worst, particularly in Massachusetts,” LaMondia said.
“About a week before we were going to harvest, the leaves started to get all puffy and there was no way they could make cigars out of them,” said Joe Czajkowski, a farmer in Hadley, Mass., in the heart of the northern valley. He grows other crops and was insured for some of his losses.
As the disease progressed, the leaves turned a sickly yellowish color.
“There was nothing you could do … we took care of the crop, but there was nothing that would make any difference,” he said.
In the southern valley, in Connecticut, the culprit wasn’t so much disease but heavy rains that in some cases literally drowned the tobacco, or produced fungi that caused root rot. And there were hail storms blowing holes like shotgun pellets in the leaves.
U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that the valley’s tobacco acreage is about 10 percent of what it once was.
In 1949, 26.3 million pounds of tobacco were harvested from 19,500 acres in Connecticut; 13.6 million pounds were harvested from 8,600 acres in Massachusetts. In 2008, about 3.5 million pounds were harvested from 2,600 acres in Connecticut, while only 968,000 pounds were harvested from 690 acres in Massachusetts.
While the exact dollar value of the crop is not known, it could be estimated at nearly $30 million, based on average prices.
The USDA expects this year’s production to drop to 594,000 pounds in Massachusetts and 2.4 million in Connecticut.
The Arnolds and Coward together employ about 80 seasonal workers, most of them local high school and college students paid about $9 to $10 per hour. Many growers rely more heavily on temporary overseas workers, including many from Jamaica, who must be housed as well as paid.
Coward said while it might cost him on average about $500 to $600 per acre to grow pumpkins, tobacco costs about $5,000 to $6,000 per acre to grow.
Planting begins in April with harvesting generally in August. It is a delicate process with each plant — or in the case of shade tobacco, each leaf — picked individually. The leaves are hung to dry for several weeks in the sheds, then pulled down by hand and bundled for sale in the early autumn. It may be Thanksgiving before the entire crop is sold to buyers, who will ship to overseas manufacturers where the leaves are rolled into cigars.
By BOB SALSBERG