On a farm northeast of Montreal, Robin Janson stands in the pouring rain and watches his son, Jocelyn, load bales of dried tobacco onto a truck destined for Ontario.
For Mr. Janson, there’s pride watching his son become a fourth-generation tobacco farmer. There’s also relief to see rain. This has been a dry year and Mr. Janson has had to pull water from the river.
He also feels fortunate to have found a buyer for his harvest; Mr. Janson went through a two-year period when no one was buying his crop. The large cigarette manufacturers who once flocked to Quebec farms for their high-quality tobacco have mostly stopped buying here. Mr. Janson is the only tobacco farmer left in the province.
At its height, Quebec’s tobacco industry supported as many as 150 farms and hundreds of seasonal workers. But the industry withered due to a combination of forces, including anti-smoking campaigns and cheaper tobacco production in other countries. In 2008, the federal government offered tobacco farmers in Quebec and Ontario financial aid to get out of the business. Most of Mr. Janson’s neighbours took it.
But growing tobacco is the only thing Mr. Janson ever wanted to do. “It’s in my heart, in my soul,” he says. He even has a tobacco plant tattooed on his shoulder.
Still, it’s not easy being the only one left.
Being the lone Quebec tobacco farmer means Mr. Janson doesn’t have access to any of the supports the province once offered to the industry. Nor does he qualify for crop insurance - meaning drought and hail are a constant worry. Mr. Janson has also struggled to find workers and reduce costs. He brings in help from Mexico, but COVID-19 restrictions have made that an expensive endeavor, since workers must quarantine in hotels for two weeks before they can start.
Two of his longest-serving workers are Jocelyne Pelletier and her son, Pierre. In the strip room where workers process the cured tobacco, Jocelyne, 76, sorts the dried tobacco leaves. She started working on Mr. Janson’s farm when she was 18. He jokes that “she changed my diapers when I was a baby.” Her son has worked with her for more than 25 years.
Tobacco is a labour-intensive process. Mr. Janson’s son, Jocelyn, 21, gathers the harvest, while Mr. Janson cures the tobacco leaves. He checks the drying process 4-5 times a day, monitoring the humidity and examining the leaves for colour changes, skills he says can take a lifetime to hone.
Three years ago the farm bought an automated harvester. But Mr. Janson has a hard time letting go of the quality of hand-picked tobacco. He doesn’t want the machines to bruise the delicate leaves.
He remembers the days when workers hung tobacco on wooden sticks over a fire, the process his father used before Mr. Janson convinced him to switch to propane-fired kilns.
Back then, tobacco companies would come to the farm to survey the harvest and submit bids. The last bid Mr. Janson received was in 2004. Now he signs contracts year-to-year.
As he puts the finishing touches on another year’s tobacco harvest, he greets questions about why he perseveres in this industry, despite so many challenges, with little more than a shrug of his shoulders. “I don’t want to do anything else,” he says.