SOUTH WINDSOR, Conn. (AP) – As public health initiatives cut into sales of cigars and cigarettes, Connecticut tobacco farmers are looking for new markets in Cuba.
Several months after President Barack Obama renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and the island nation's communist government, ending a 54-year freeze, proposed legislation in Congress would lift trade restrictions.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., appeared Friday with South Windsor farmers and agriculture officials urging passage of the trade measure.
Ed Kasheta Jr., whose Kasheta Farms was founded by his great-great-grandfather in 1906, welcomes the prospect of selling tobacco to Cuba, which is known for its own cigar-making industry.
"I think it's one more place to reach out to," he said.
Tobacco is Connecticut's fifth largest agriculture product by market value, at $35.7 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The crop is grown on 49 farms and accounts for 6.5 percent of total agricultural product sales in the state.
Murphy is a co-sponsor of the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, which would remove the president's authority to continue the embargo and eliminate enforcement of the embargo and prohibition on Cuban imports. Following the re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba this summer, a "tectonic shift" in policy toward the Caribbean country has occurred, drawing bipartisanship support for the export legislation, Murphy said.
"A year ago, this bill wouldn't have had a chance," he said.
Tobacco farms were once common in the Connecticut River Valley in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Kasheta, whose farm — down to 15 acres from 50 — grows tobacco for use as filler or wrappers. Markets are disappearing as smoking declines, he said.
"Everyone is on an anti-smoking kick," he said.
In addition, cigar smoking has changed, shifting to "gourmet cigars and weekend smokers," Kasheta said.
"You don't get these hard-core tobacco smokers anymore," he said.
Murphy said he's been an "anti-tobacco crusader," but he defended Connecticut's tobacco as a premium product used in a limited cigar market. "The tobacco is not going into the everyday cigar market," he said.
In addition, he said he has a responsibility as a lawmaker to help protect a state industry.
"If you represent Connecticut, you've got to recognize that 800 to 1,000 jobs are connected to the high-end cigar wrapper growers," Murphy said.