WINDSOR — When a small tornado tore through OJ Thrall's tobacco fields in Windsor on Monday afternoon, the fragile leaves were within a week of being harvested.
Shade nets were torn away from nearly 20 percent of the crop — about 40 acres' worth — and strewn across the landscape, some as far as 2 miles away.
About 20 acres of plants were bent and battered.
On Tuesday morning, workers mounted a massive effort to salvage as much of the crop as possible before the July 6 harvest date.
Hundreds were out in the fields repairing netting, replacing fallen posts and lifting structural and irrigation devices off plants. Others were standing up the plants with unbroken stalks and repacking dirt around their bases.
"The tornado literally stripped the leaves off tobacco plants," said Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky, who toured the area Tuesday morning.
"They really have an exceptional crew out here. This place looks a whole lot better than it did at 7 this morning," said Reviczky. "They're committed to putting things back together."
Windsor and Windsor Locks Public Works employees were gathering the stray netting and bringing it back to the farm by the truckload, where farm employees were waiting to repair it by hand.
"They're going to retrieve as much as they can," said Reviczky.
"It really is a remarkable event," Reviczky said. "I've never seen anything like it in person. There would be total devastation next to an area that looks untouched."
OJ Thrall employs 900 workers, 300 of whom are migrant workers who live on the farm, said George Krivda, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture.
Eliecel Merced, who has worked at Thrall since 1994, said that workers were focused on replacing the outside framework of wooden posts first, before the netting could be rehung over the plants.
Merced and his team were digging holes six feet into the ground to reattach "dead man" wires that keep the posts leaning at a proper angle to keep the netting taut. The winds bent or toppled many of the posts.
Merced said that the repairs were expected to take 2 1/2 to 3 weeks, but that the first picking of the season, scheduled for Saturday, would go on as planned.
It's too early to put a dollar figure on the loss to OJ Thrall's crop, Reviczky said. But to put things in perspective, he said the farm is the state's largest grower of tobacco — the highest-value crop in Connecticut.
Some of the exposed crop might be salvageable, depending on how quickly the missing netting can be replaced. Some netting blew as far as a few miles and lodged in trees as high as 60 feet in the air, he said. It ended up on both sides of I-91.
Some of the damage can't be fixed.
Growing tobacco is a labor-intensive process, Krivda said. It is grown from seeds in greenhouses, transplanted, harvested by hand and hung to dry. Each layer of leaves is harvested separately, when they are at peak quality.
Connecticut shade tobacco is grown under netting that decreases sunlight and increases humidity. Its leaves are used as the wrapper for many cigars.
Connecticut shade tobacco is considered some of the finest in the world, Krivda said. The quality is so high that even a few hours of exposure to sunlight from the missing netting could be enough to downgrade the leaves.
The National Weather Service confirmed Monday's storm as an EF-1 tornado. It touched down in OJ Thrall fields near Hayden Station Road in Windsor about 1:30 p.m, then traveled 2.25 miles across I-91 and the Connecticut River and into East Windsor.
In addition to damage to the fields, the funnel cloud blew trees down onto houses and power lines, knocking out power for more than 800 customers Monday night, and knocked over part of a sports dome in East Windsor.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited the Thrall farm Tuesday and said the tornado damage may qualify farmers for government assistance.
The Production Loss Assistance Needed Today program — or "Plant Grant" — was first announced last Sunday to help farmers who struggled with recent heavy rains, among other weather challenges.
The state Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Agriculture have set aside $5 million to offset damages, and farmers may make claims online at http://www.ctgrown.gov for assistance.
"We're going to try to help them recover as quickly as they can," said Malloy.
He added that many national agriculture assistance programs focus on "megafarms," and Connecticut farmers who grow several types of crops often don't qualify for national aid, which is why state aid is so important.
Kissel, whose district includes Windsor, said his first job at age 14 was picking tobacco leaves.
"The quality was so high we couldn't even get our fingerprints on the leaves. We had to pick them right at the stalk," he said, highlighting the delicacy of these plants and the timely need to replace irrigation and netting infrastructure.