Five minutes off Route 5 in South Windsor is Bordua Farms. The medium-sized, family-owned farm has been growing fresh Connecticut broadleaf tobacco since the early nineties. Today, the farm cultivates about ninety acres, thirty are used exclusively for tobacco farming.
Justin Bordua, current owner and son of the farm’s founders, oversees the operation. The season begins with three or five tablespoons of tobacco seed planted in one of five tobacco beds, in his backyard. Justin says, “Only a couple tablespoons of tobacco seed produces thirty acres of Connecticut broadleaf.” The valuable seeds are kept moist and fresh in five pouches stored in the Bordua family’s kitchen above paperwork, bills, and family photos. Before the seeds are sown into beds Justin and his wife mix them in bowls with play sand, a technique that always yields the perfect amount of seed for each bed.
The seeds germinate for seven to fourteen days. When the sprouts reach two to three inches, they’re ready to be transplanted from the beds to the fields on the back of tractors. Once in the fields the tobacco grows throughout the summer until the beginning of August. Harvest time is the most painstaking part of the job. Bordua Farms typically hires a twenty to twenty-five man seasonal crew, mostly comprised of high school and college students to work alongside a handful of year-round employees.
During the hottest part of the year the team uses hatchets and spears to harvest about an acre a day, if the New England weather allows them to. It is hard, backbreaking, and stressful work as the workers are expected to carefully cut down tobacco leaves without as much as a scratch on the world-class product with their rudimentary tools in the scorching heat. As each acre is picked the workers transport the harvest to the tobacco sheds where they’re filled top to bottom with the season’s harvest. The tobacco is cured in the sheds right up until the workers are set to go back to school, often resulting in absentee workers.
“Labor costs are easily our greatest expense,” Justin says, “It sucks knowing we got to pay the good worker who comes back year after year the same as the fourteen-year-old who can’t tie their shoes and is gone next season.” If it isn’t labor, it’s another headache for the family farm such as trucking fees to ship crushed limestone needed to balance the acidity in the soil or increasing land taxes.
The number one killer for the Connecticut tobacco industry is the shortage of sheds. Within the last fifty years the number of sheds has declined for a multitude of reasons. Many have been bought out and the land repurposed for commercial or residential zones. They are expensive to build and maintain during the long New England winters. One shed belonging to Bordua Farms burned down twenty years ago when locals threw a party inside. Without the sheds to cure the leaves there is no point in using all the available land to grow the world-renowned tobacco.
It is a huge relief to the farmers and laborers when all the tobacco is stored up in the sheds for the season. Farm operators then focus on finding buyers for their crop each autumn. In some cases, a whole farm’s yield can be purchased by a single buyer.
The Constitution State grows the finest tobacco used for cigar wraps; Connecticut broadleaf and Connecticut shade. Whether paying top dollar at a cigar shop or picking up pack of Palma Dutch Masters at the corner store, many across the world have inhaled the fine tobacco grown here in Connecticut. But before going from farm to manufactured tobacco products, much of the tobacco eventually used to make cigars and cigarettes is resold by a resident tobacco leaf wholesaler.
Only a couple tablespoons of tobacco seed produces thirty acres of Connecticut broadleaf.
Up Route 9 along the Mattabesset River in Middletown is Leaf Only, one of America’s premier wholesale tobacco leaf distributors. A regional and international broker, dealer, and importer of high-quality tobacco from all over the world. “We started out about a decade ago as just the warehouse,” says principal owner John Wallace, “The shop and humidor we added after a couple years of business.” Down the right-hand hallway is the cigar humidor with a wall-to-wall selection of quality cigars.
Inside the shop is an array of tobacco products on shelves; customers have options between different brands of pipe and cigarette tobacco along with everything they need to roll their own. The glass counter displays leaves for filler, binders, and wrappers from South America; various strains of Fronto leaves line the right-hand wall giving off an enticing aroma.
To the left are the employee offices and behind the counter are the doors that lead to where the magic happens; the warehouse. Wallace says, “About 1 percent of all our business is done in-state, 10 percent is done internationally, and the rest comes from the rest of the states. A lot comes out of New York.” The back of Leaf Only is a main hub for processing orders and sorting out shipments. Further down are rooms filled with crates containing five-hundred pounds of farm-fresh tobacco grown home and abroad. Most transactions are done online where buyers can set up an account on their website. Wholesale orders for bulk buyers are done at a minimum of ten pounds of tobacco leaves per order as well as become affiliated with Leaf Only to sell whole leaf tobacco and earn revenue.
A young staff operates the business and each member is helpful as they are enthusiastic about their job. Here all your tobacco needs are covered whether you’re looking for something imported, locally grown, wraps, or filler by the pound. “To say, ‘I am smoking my own hand rolled cigar’ or ‘This is a custom natural cigarette blend made specifically for my taste’ is something that implies a level of gratification that reaches far beyond the modern conception of ‘tobacco.’”
Whether it’s the smooth-burning, woody flavor of a CT shade-wrapped Montecristo or taking a strong puff from a broadleaf cigar there’s no questioning the quality that’s been flowing out the Connecticut River Valley for over two centuries. From the backyard to the farm to the warehouse tobacco continues to pump through the valley.
Headline photo courtesy of the Leaf Only website, featuring the staff.
Dylan Autunno is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine.