RICHMOND, Va. — Something unusual is cropping up alongside the tomatoes, eggplant and okra in Scott Byars’ vegetable garden — the elephantine leaves of 30 tobacco plants.
Driven largely by ever-rising tobacco prices, he’s among a growing number of smokers who have turned to their green thumbs to cultivate tobacco plants to blend their own cigarettes, cigars and chew. Byars normally pays US$5 for a five-pack of cigars and US$3 for a tin of snuff; the seed cost him US$9.
“I want to get to where I don’t have to go to the store and buy tobacco, but I’ll just be able to supply my own from one year to the next,” Byars said.
In urban lots and on rural acres, smokers and smokeless tobacco users are planting Virginia Gold, Goose Creek Red, Yellow Twist Bud and dozens of other tobacco varieties.
Although most people still buy from big tobacco, the movement took off in April when the tax on cigarettes went up 62 cents to US$1.01 a pack. Large tax increases were also imposed on other tobacco products, and tobacco companies upped prices even more to compensate for lost sales.
Some seed suppliers have reported a tenfold increase in sales as some of the country’s 43.3 million smokers look for a cheaper way to get their nicotine fix in a down economy. Cigarettes cost an average of US$4.35 a pack, home growers can make that amount for about 30 cents. It’s the latest do-it-yourself movement as others repair their own cars, swap used clothes and cancel yard work services to save money.
“Cigarette smokers say, ’Yeah, we’re going to die of cancer, but do we have to die of poverty as well?”’ said Jack Basharan, who operates The Tobacco Seed Co. Ltd. in Essex, England. Virtually all of his increased tobacco seed sales have been in the U.S., he said. Provided the tobacco isn’t sold or traded, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate homegrown tobacco. Most people grow for cigarettes, but some blend their own cigars and chew.
The FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture don’t keep statistics on home growers, though seed suppliers and Internet buzz suggest strong interest.
Seedman.com has sold more than 100,000 packets of tobacco seeds this year, compared with 22,000 in all of 2008, president Jim Johnson said. The Gautier, Miss.-based company offers 40 varieties of tobacco from around the globe and packages various flavour blends for first-time growers.
A grower who purchased one of Johnson’s Oriental and Turkish blends for US$24.50 could satisfy a pack-a-day habit for more than three years, according to Johnson’s calculations.