Pioneer Valley has rich history of growing tobacco
By DOMENIC POLI, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 16, 2019
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But, other times, that smoke you’re holding is wrapped in a tobacco leaf grown along the Connecticut River — in which case, a cigar is a glimpse into an agricultural niche that was once the largest industry of some Franklin County towns.
The area’s history of growing tobacco — primarily shade and broadleaf — is as rich as the soil that nourishes it, though production has dwindled due to a lower demand resulting from public awareness of the crop’s link to lung cancer, emphysema and other illnesses. There was a time when scores of migrant workers and high school and college students made summer cash working the fields and barns that produced tobacco, serving as a huge economic driver in what was termed “Tobacco Valley,” which spans from Portland, Conn., up to Greenfield.
Adelia Bardwell, president of the Whately Historical Society, worked in a barn for Consolidated Cigar Co. as a teenager, “and that was 100 years ago,” she joked.
“It was dirty work. When you came home, you smelled of tobacco. There was an oil to it,” she recalled. “I can remember it was good money. I would have to say that.”
Bar-Way Farm and Walter Kownacki’s farm on North Hillside Road, both in Deerfield, once grew tobacco until demand plummeted. Tobacco has been grown in Whately, mostly in the lowlands of East Whately along River Road and Long Plain Road, for more than 200 years.
Local developer Mark Wightman, 60, remembers eight-hour days, belly pointed toward the sky with a burlap sack to protect his pants, pruning unproductive leaves known as suckers on land owned by the Decker Corporation at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. This process increases the quality of the remaining leaves. He said the shade tobacco made the best cigar wrappers in the world. Local kids, he said, had to compete with the speed of teenagers from West Virginia brought up for the labor. “It was hard, dirty work,” he recalled, adding that it did not pay well. Wightman still has a love affair with the land, which he now owns and uses for his senior condominium project, The Condominiums at Sugarloaf.
According to a reconnaissance report as part of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation’s Heritage Landscape Inventory Program, Whately’s first minister — the Rev. Rufus Wells — raised a large crop of tobacco in 1771, selling it at a sixpence per pound. The Belden, Craft and Wells families were the largest tobacco growers in town in the late 1700s, with 15 acres in cultivation.
Demand for the broadleaf Havana field tobacco grown in Whately declined as plug tobacco from Virginia became more popu-lar, and Whately specialized in other crops for several decades. That is, however, until 1843, when Stephen Belden planted some Connecticut field tobacco seed and shipped it to New York with the corn brooms he made. His ensuing success got others interested in growing tobacco and, by 1855, there were 97 tobacco barns in Whately, each spanning 75 to 100 feet by 30 feet or more.
By 1865, there were 300 acres of tobacco in Whately. Over the years, Sumatra shade-grown tobacco and field tobacco were grown. As any cigar aficionado knows, Whately tobacco is used for cigars — shadegrown is used for wrappers and field tobacco is used for fillers and binders.
Bardwell’s first-grade classmate Harold Swift was brought up in the tobacco business and serves as an unofficial local expert on the industry. Swift said the Pioneer Valley is ideal for growing tobacco due to its proximity to the Connecticut River and the level of humidity necessary for the plants. He said tobacco grows best within about 5 miles of a river.
Helicopters are better than airplanes for crop dusting because the downdraft would coat the underside of the leaves, whereas planes would coat only the topsides. He would sometimes occupy the pilots to make sure his neighbor’s properties weren’t being treated.
“It was a very interesting thing to fly in a chopper for the first time,” he said at Whately Town Hall during a November 2016 talk about the town’s history of tobacco agriculture.
Swift said tobacco seeds are the size of coffee grounds and expensive organic fertilizer is required to cultivate the crop. He also said approximately 1 ton of fertilizer is used per acre. He stills owns Westbrook Farm, which grows tobacco in Whately. Swift said he quit smoking cigars in 2002, though he often keeps an unlit one on hand.
He explained shade tobacco has 15 to 18 leaves to a plant, with the leaves on top being more coarse. Not wanting to waste any money, tobacco companies would take those lower-quality leaves and use them on less expensive cigars.
According to Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a South Deerfield nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farms and building a strong local food economy, the area’s humid summers and cold winters make the perfect climate for growing broadleaf. The Sanderson family — the descendants of dairy farmers — still grows tobacco at the most recent installment of Fairview Farms on Long Plain Road. According to CISA, the Sandersons started in the late 1980s or early ’90s and were planting more than 120 acres of broadleaf each year by the early 2000s.
However, the farm started to diversify into floral farming following some industry hardship in 2010. CISA reports that Alan Sanderson Jr., based on an informal estimate from his distributor, and his crew of more than 70 planted the typical amount of tobacco and hung much of it to dry in dozens of rented barns across the county. But the cigar companies that usually bought this crop were wary of the effects of the 2008 worldwide financial crisis and would not risk carrying a large inventory they could not sell. Fairview Farms, like other tobacco operations in the valley, took some devastating hits.
According to its website, the farm has also expanded to wholesale greenhouse tomatoes twice a year — available approximately from May 1 through July 15 and Oct. 15 through Jan. 15. It produces flowers and tomatoes in a 3½-acre greenhouse complex. Staff reporter Domenic Poli joined the Greenfield Recorder in 2016. He covers Sunderland, Whately, Conway and Deerfield. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.