Gerald Gray wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare his meals for the long day in the fields as one of the 100 Jamaican workers employed by the Jarmoc family on the Jarmoc Farms tobacco fields.
The work is labor intensive and during August, temperatures have reached 100 degrees during the day in Enfield. But Gray and his fellow countrymen told The Courant that this doesn’t bother them too much as they are used to working in the heat.
Back in Jamaica, Gray left behind his wife and two children. He regularly sends money back via the Western Union in East Windsor.
“You’ve got to do what you have to do to make money,” he said.
Many of his fellow countrymen made similar statements about spending time away from their families each year. While in the United States, the men have formed a bond with each other like a second family.
This relationship, based upon mutual affection and respect, creates a sense of camaraderie and a strong bond between among the men working the fields. An unofficial hierarchy has formed through Jamaican culture and for practical reasons.
The older generations of men are revered due to their age and experience at the cigar-wrapper tobacco farm. Selvin Beecher is just one example of this. Other workers refer to him as “Mr. Beecher,” never “Selvin.”
Beecher is the main point of contact for younger, less experienced workers in the fields, and when he directs the workers, they jump to fulfill his request.
The workers, along with Gray, all rise together with at roughly 5 a.m. to cook and prepare a packed lunch for the fields. The farm used to employ a cook, but farmer Owen Jarmoc told The Courant it wasn’t long before the Jamaican men asked to cook for themselves because they didn’t like the food that was being prepared.
In the early morning hours, the kitchen is filled with the scent of boiling rice and Jamaican-style jerk chicken.
The cooking area is relatively small, and with 50 men all sleeping in the same building, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that getting the day’s food cooked and ready for each person would be bedlam.
Instead, in complete silence, the men work with have a well-rehearsed rhythm and flow about them. Those with a specific task stoop over the counters and while the rest those that are not needed or have no task stream out of the area and back into the sleeping quarters to ready themselves for the day’s work.
They are driven on old school buses from their accommodation on Moody Street to the field on the Enfield and Somers town line.
Once disembarked, they divide into two groups: those who cut down the tobacco and those that who collect it.
Sammy Johnson sharpens his small hatchet and prepares to grasp the base of each tobacco plant stem to cut with a single swipe of his blade.
A water barrel is positioned behind the lines of old tractors, which all loudly sit with their engines running, waiting for the other group, including Gray, to collect the leaves and load them onto the trailers behind.
Each day the total of 125 workers will harvest 15 acres, roughly 2,000 pounds of tobacco, by hand from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The longest-working Jamaican employee is 64-year-old Edwin Rowe. Known by the other younger Jamaicans as “Mr. Rowe,” has been working continuously at the farm for 42 years and now works alongside his 32-year-old son, Edwain Rowe.
A stream of vintage red tractors rumbles down Hazard Avenue then takes a left down Broadbrook Road toward an array of eight large red barns stacked with drying tobacco to dry out.
Jamaican workers have erected six more barns under the direction of Rowe, who has been able to judge the dimensions by memory.
The men are in the U.S. under the H2A, also known as an agricultural visa, which allows the farm, which meets specific regulatory requirements, to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs.
Last year saw a record number of migrants on H2A visas coming to the U.S. to work, according to the Wilson Center, a policy analysist group. Jamaicans account for two percent of the 258,000 H2A visas issued in 2021.
Jamaica and three other countries account for 99% of the 258,000 H2A visas issued in 2021. Mexico accounted for 93% of the H2A visas in 2021, South Africa for 3% and Guatemala for 1%, according to the Wilson Center.
Connecticut increased the minimum wage from $13 per hour to $14 per hour on July 1, 2022. Although the tobacco field pay at $15.66 an hour is $1.66 over the minimum wage in Connecticut, farmer Owen Jarmoc said they couldn’t find the workforce locally.
“Americans are just not interested in working out in the fields for that pay,” Owen Jarmoc said.
$15.66 per hour is how much they pay. $14 per hour is Connecticut’s minimum wage. $1.66 is how much more the farm pays its migrant workers over minimum wage.
The Jarmoc family has run Jarmoc Farms Tobacco for over four generations, with Owen Jarmoc, 26, working to eventually take over the 1,000-acre tobacco farm from his father, Stephen Jarmoc.
The 100 Jamaican workers come over on the H2A work visas in April and most will stay until December, Owen Jarmoc told the Courant.
Their accommodation is paid for, so they focus on the laborious work in the tobacco fields until they return home with more savings than they could earn on their island, according to multiple workers.
“Once they return home, they don’t need to work until they fly back the following year,” Owen Jarmoc said.