by Paul Burdziakowski
When you hear the words tobacco farm you might imagine the rolling fields of North Carolina or a plantation in tropical Havana, Cuba as the ideal setting. There is, however, a long-standing tobacco farm that sits in the temperate climate of Southwick, MA.
“Tobacco farming has been in the Connecticut River Valley for a long time,” said John Arnold, one of three brothers who co-own the farm. “People think of it as southern best quality tobacco grown here in the north.”
The 100-acre tobacco farm comes complete with five tobacco drying sheds, two greenhouses, one barracks for housing laborers and an assortment of farming equipment. The two main types of tobacco plants the Arnolds grow on their farm are used as wrappers for cigars.
John, along with his two brothers Dave and Fred, have been in the tobacco business for 45 years. It was six generations prior to this, in 1835, that the Arnolds began farming tobacco in Southwick. The Arnold name goes back even further than this, with some interesting historical connections.
The story starts back in 1627 when John Arnold, an indentured servant at the time, traveled all the way from England to New England. After eight years, John became a free man and chose to settle with his family in Connecticut. He later became one of the incorporators of the city of Hartford. Three generations after him, Joseph Arnold helped to establish Adam, CT.
Tobacco farming season in New England runs from early April through the end of October. While considered a labor intensive form of agriculture, tobacco farming has provided plenty of job opportunities throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut that don’t exist in other parts of the country.
With the additional job opportunities that tobacco farming provided came the need for more workers. During the 1600s the predominate form of help came from local adult laborers. By the time the 1950s came around there was mainly local teenage help. The 1980s brought with it the go-go economy which steered teenagers into other jobs outside of farming, leaving an inadequate amount of labor. In fact, in 1987, one third of the tobacco crop was left out in the Arnolds field. As a result of that, the Arnolds built a barracks on the property in 1988 and turned to foreign labor for help.
“That first year we entered into an H-2A program with the U.S. Department of Labor and brought in 20 Jamaican and Mexican laborers,” said Fred.
The Arnolds enjoyed several decades of successful tobacco farming but during that time the tobacco market had begun to slowly shrink. This downward trend accelerated further in 2005 when there was a $10 billion buyout of tobacco farmers and quota holders as part of the termination of the federal tobacco price support program. This, along with a separate combination of economic factors, forced the Arnolds to make some changes. In 2002 the Arnolds lost a major shade tobacco buyer that forced them to transition away from growing it. By 2005 the Arnolds stopped growing shade tobacco altogether.
The other issue was tobacco blue mold and tobacco mosaic virus, two tobacco plant diseases that plagued the Arnolds crop and prevented them from making a quality leaf.
“Both of these diseases have always been around but in the last ten to fifteen years they just seemed to evolve and became difficult to control,” said John.
Tobacco blue mold develops and spreads most rapidly during periods of cool, wet and overcast weather causing distinct cupped leaves with a bluish downy mold on the lower surface. Tobacco mosaic virus manifests itself out in the field during the early stages of plants. It causes dark yellow spots and wrinkles in the leaves which is critical because the look, feel and taste are vitally important on a cigar wrapper.
By 2011 the Arnolds stopped growing broad leaf tobacco on a large-scale basis but they found other ways to generate revenue. What they did was rent out their property to nearby tobacco farms willing to take on the challenges. The Arnolds also signed a license agreement with the state of Connecticut to raise and sell the seed of a special form of marketable broad leaf tobacco which is resistant to a parasite called tobacco cyst nematode that attacks the roots of tobacco plants that can leave an entire field of yellow colored plants instead of the normal healthy shade of green. The state provided the Arnolds with the male and female parent seedlings to produce the offspring plants having the parasite resistance.
In 2014 the Arnolds took on another endeavor, growing and selling Stevia, a type of bush leaf native to Paraguay and Brazil used to sweeten foods. Stevia is unique as a food ingredient because of what it doesn’t do, which is add calories. Because Stevia is 200 times sweeter than sugar in the same concentration, it is a big part of the sugar substitute market.
“Stevia is very new in this country but it is a good crop to grow because there are not a lot of people farming it which makes for less competition,” said Dave.
So far the Arnolds have cultivated a few rows of Stevia crop in order to see how well it responds to the climate and soil. They are also working on packaging, labeling and marketing strategies.
“It is our goal to find some local markets by next year,” said Fred.
Challenges and obstacles are nothing new to the Arnolds. Today they are in a state of transition, taking what this day and age has to offer but they have also shown they will work hard and persevere to overcome whatever stands in their way. With values and resilience such as this the Arnold name is sure to continue on in history as a family name that stands the test of time.
Historic Southwick tobacco farmers evolve with the times
by Paul Burdziakowski