Jackson—dubbed “the only mega-farmer” in the North Carolina senate—had been accused by several migrant workers of either failing to pay their wages or blacklisting them for joining a union, according to court documents. In 2019, he was still in the midst of one of those court cases. But the cigarette maker’s relationship with Jackson goes beyond politics. They also do business together.
At North Carolina’s capitol in Raleigh, Jackson has become a powerful force in the state’s corridors of power. Head south, though, to his home in Sampson County, and you’ll find his farm: thousands of acres of land where scores of seasonal migrant workers toil in the sun to pick watermelons, cantaloupes, sweet potatoes—and tobacco.
An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Mother Jones and Enlace Latino NC can reveal how Reynolds American has pumped a significant amount of money into Jackson’s campaign. In fact, few lawmakers in the Tar Heel State have received more money from the company than Jackson, who has in turn used his platform to promote bills that prevent his workers speaking out against abuse.
Interviews with migrant workers employed on his farm reveal why they felt compelled to speak out. The union took its concerns about Jackson’s farm directly to Reynolds American, first in 2015 and again in 2019. But, despite senior executives’ claims that the company supports the freedom of farm workers in its supply chain to unionize, Reynolds continued to buy tobacco from Jackson’s farm and to help fund his political career.
“It’s hypocritical,” said MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, an association of unions. “Reynolds has been union-busting for a long time, so I really don’t necessarily believe that they support freedom of association.”
North Carolina is the worst state to work in America according to Oxfam, and has some of the lowest rates of unionization in the country. In some states, one in four workers are part of a union. In North Carolina, it’s one in 30, and farm workers are often not afforded the few protections granted in other industries. Jackson wants to keep it that way: in recent years he has spearheaded efforts to even further hinder the power of his workers to organize.
In Reynolds American, Jackson has not only found a buyer for his crop but also a generous source of funds for his political endeavors—which include weakening the union that has helped his own employees take him to court.
In 1980, North Carolina’s governor James Hunt said: “In this state, tobacco is still king. And we intend to keep it king.” More than four decades later, the Bureau’s analysis of campaign finance data, combined with depositions and email records contained in court filings, reveals the enduring influence of Big Tobacco on North Carolina politics.
And while Reynolds claims to support freedom of association within its global supply chain, its political donations tell a different story altogether.
Under the shade of a giant oak tree, Carlos* sits on a folding chair and takes a deep breath. It’s a Sunday, his day off from working the fields—tomatoes and tobacco currently—in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. It’s the day when he rinses off his mud-caked work boots and sets them out in the sun to dry, his tired feet in socks and slides.
Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop. It begins life in a greenhouse before being transplanted into the soil. It grows to a few feet tall and you often start by only picking the leaves at the base of the stem, which has to be done by hand. The early-morning dew makes it give off a greasy chemical smell and the tar slowly turns your gloves black.
The nicotine in tobacco keeps smokers hooked, but for workers in the fields who are exposed to nicotine day in, day out, it can cause “green tobacco sickness”—a condition that leads to headaches, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. A day off is a welcome respite.
Behind Carlos, a few men hang laundry on a clothesline. He squints to see which of his fellow workers have come out of the old, large house they all share. It’s comfortable enough, especially compared to the accommodation he remembers at Jackson’s farm.
“Some of us get along, but not all of us,” he says in Spanish. He jokes that living among 16 farm workers in one house for six months out of the year is like being on a reality show without the cameras. But the camaraderie that does develop is what gets them through the season.
Carlos says that despite the physically grueling work—repeating the same action hundreds of times a day—his current setup is far better than when he first came to the US seven years ago, as a seasonal agricultural worker on what is known as a H-2A visa. That first year, Carlos toiled in fields about 100 miles southeast for Brent Jackson and his son Rodney.
“We called it the chicken coop,” Carlos says of the housing provided to him and dozens of other workers on the Jackson farm. “It was just wooden walls and a tin roof … it would rain and all the water would leak in.”
Carlos first arrived on Jackson’s farm in Autryville in the summer of 2015. Immediately, he noticed an “incompetence” with the people in charge. He worked from 7am to 8pm and says he rarely saw the Jacksons.
Brent Jackson, who did not respond to the Bureau’s repeated requests for comment, is hailed as one of the success stories of the North Carolina agriculture industry. The son of a secretary and a barber, he grew up on a small plot of land off a dirt road in the heart of tobacco country, surrounded by the industry that formed the backbone of North Carolina. He got his first taste of tobacco-picking on a nearby farm as a child and never looked back.
“The bug bit me. There was something about working with the soil and just watching things grow and nourishing them,” said Jackson during a recent interview on a North Carolina podcast called Do Politics Better, his words spilling out in a slow Southern drawl.
Over the years, he and his wife Debbie, with the help of Rodney, have grown a small slice of his native Sampson County into a 6,000-acre farm. They now grow a whole host of fresh produce and row crops, such as cotton, peanuts and tobacco, but are best known for their watermelons and cantaloupes, Jackson says. (One of the company’s logos is a raccoon eating a watermelon, invoking the racist caricatures that were popularized during the Jim Crow era.)
By 2010, in his words, he could “no longer stand back and watch agriculture, our state’s number-one industry, take a back seat in the policies being implemented in Raleigh”. That was the year he was elected as state senator, and he has since emerged as a driving force behind agriculture policy in North Carolina. In 2016, he was one of 64 people appointed to the agricultural advisory committee of then presidential candidate Donald Trump. He told the Do Politics Better podcast that his “lifelong goal” is to become the state’s commissioner of agriculture.
Jackson’s business and public lives appear to have always been inextricably linked. He part-owns a gun shop and is a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, earning himself an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. He has advocated for expanding the hemp industry in North Carolina while renting some of his property to a hemp company. He was behind a scheme that gives grants to farms for improving natural gas infrastructure and later applied for a $925,000 grant from that very scheme (he did not receive any funds).
A few months ago, Jackson was accused of self-dealing. He had bought two warehouses in a nearby town and, after being told that the buildings would need to meet fire safety standards, he authored a bill that expanded exemptions from fire inspections. “He chose to write a bill that would exempt his personal building from compliance,” the North Carolina Fire Marshals’ Association wrote in a letter to the state’s governor in July, according to local TV news station WRAL.
He has also thrown his weight behind policies that critics say have attempted to silence farm workers like Carlos, who have spoken out against mistreatment by North Carolina farmers.
Tobacco-picking is is often done by migrant Latino workers, both H-2A and undocumented. They can face abuse and exploitation from when they are recruited in Mexico, before they even set foot on US soil. But they are essential to the economic stability of North Carolina, providing a steady supply of labour for agricultural jobs that can’t be filled by Americans.
Reynolds American, which is part of the London-based British American Tobacco, does not directly own any farms nor employ any farm workers. Instead, it buys tobacco from farmers like Jackson, independent growers who often use seasonal workers on the H-2A program.
“The tobacco companies essentially looked at it like, ‘These are just suppliers and we have no responsibility for what goes on on the farms,’” said Justin Flores, a North Carolina-based organizer who worked closely with workers on Jackson’s farm as part of his former job with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a workers’ union.
When approached by the Bureau, Reynolds pointed to its commitment to ethical farming practice and said it promotes “a robust culture of compliance to ensure all farmers with whom we contract meet or exceed all US laws regarding farm worker employment”.
Like many who come to North Carolina on the H-2A program, Carlos typically starts by farming vegetables and tobacco before moving west later in the year to harvest Christmas trees. When he returns to Mexico, he works in corn fields but says he only makes 800 to 900 pesos a week, the equivalent of less than $45. In North Carolina, he can earn that in a few hours. “I come [to the US] for my family, for my children,” says the father of four. “I want to give them a better life.”
But he says the place he was given to live during the season he spent on Jackson’s farm was “uninhabitable”. And he wasn’t the first to question the treatment of migrant workers there.
Donations and Allegations
One hot and humid day, while out picking tomatoes, Fuentes began to feel dizzy. After finding some shade where he could sit and take a break, he was eventually carried back to the camp where he and the other farm workers were living. His colleagues laid him outside on a sheet and left him alone. Jackson’s wife Debbie, who was supervising the farm workers that day, “failed to administer any type of first aid”, according to an official report obtained by the Bureau through a public records request.
Fuentes had suffered severe heatstroke and was only semi-conscious by the time the emergency services arrived. At no point did staff place Fuentes in the nearby produce cooler or air-conditioned office, a decision described as “inexplicable” by an industrial commissioner ruling on the incident. Farm staff were not properly trained to spot the signs of heatstroke despite having been warned about the risks just a few months prior.
His body temperature, taken at the hospital that evening, was more than 108°F, the highest the thermometer could read. He fell into a coma and doctors feared he might die.
Fuentes survived, but he is not expected to ever recover. For the 24 years since, his sister has been providing him with round-the-clock medical care back in Mexico.
After the incident, Jackson Farming Company was fined $2,500 by the North Carolina Department of Labor, the records released to the Bureau reveal. Jackson challenged the penalty but did not succeed.
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