Australia has some of the world's toughest anti-smoking laws. Of course there were the world-first mandatory plain packaging laws. There's also been a steady rise in prices since 1996, an increase of some 343 percent in just over 20 years. These high costs saw a lot of Australian smokers turn to rollies, but with the 2017 Budget imposing a tax increase on roll-your-own (RYO) there's already talk of where smokers will go next.
With RYO getting expensive, growing your own is sounding more and more appealing—to smokers, and to those willing to invest in the risky trade to make a profit. As cigarette prices have risen, so has the black market trade of tobacco. "Chop chop" or illegal tobacco is being imported and grown under the government's nose.
But how easy is it to actually grow your own tobacco? And is it really worth the risk? If you're caught growing it in Australia, you're facing jail time. To find out, we asked Ron*, a tobacco farmer who's been growing for years now.
VICE: Hey Ron, you've been growing tobacco for years. Have you noticed more interest in grow-your-own recently as cigarettes have gotten more expensive?
There is always a lot more interest when taxes are increased. I think the increase is certainly a money making scheme. It appalls me. It shouldn't be taxed at a higher rate than any other unhealthy product, such as French fries or skateboards.
I'm curious, on average, how much tobacco can you get out of one plant?
Ron: Depending on the strain of tobacco—and the growing conditions—you can estimate each plant will yield enough tobacco to produce about five packets of cigarettes.
And if someone were to grow their own tobacco, how much would a pouch cost them?
Pennies, aside from the value of your labour.
That's… actually a lot cheaper than I would've thought. Is it hard to grow though? Walk me through the method from seed to cig.
You need to plant your tobacco seeds indoors. The plants should be spaced about [half a metre] apart with [about a metre] wide rows. The seeds are tiny and should be sprinkled on a finely textured moist growing [soil]. After adding the seeds, cover the soil with newspaper to hold the moisture in, and spray the soil from time to time with a spray bottle that produces a fine mist.
It'll take between three days and two weeks for the seeds to germinate, depending on the strain and freshness of the seeds. Germinate the seeds in the dark to speed up germination. Once the seeds germinate, move them into the light—or stems will elongate and the plants will flop over. Then you need to keep them in a heated greenhouse, indoors in a sunny window, or indoors under an artificial light source. Finally, thin the seedlings out by removing all but the best one or two plants per pot, eventually only leaving one plant.
Okay so you've got a germinated seed, and have thinned the seedlings out. How do you get from there to tobacco?
So you need to transplant them outdoors, after any dangers of frost. The leaves are now between five and eight centimetres long. Keep them well watered and fertilised. Tobacco grows like a monster, so it has to be fed and watered like one. Using un-composted manure will taint the flavour of your tobacco, so only use compost or chemical fertiliser.
Flowers from the plant should be covered with a fine mesh bag to prevent cross-pollination. When ripe, the leaves take on a crinkled appearance similar to alligator skin. They may start yellowing and the stems will become brittle. If there is threat of frost, harvest the whole plant regardless of leaf colour or ripeness.
And after you have harvested the plant, how do you process the tobacco?
Then you need to hang the leaves in clusters using a rubber band or wire tie around the leaf stems in a protected area with some air circulation until the leaves turn brown. Rotate the leaves within the pile everyday or they will begin sticking to one another and tearing. The dried leaves will naturally cure when stored. The longer they are stored, the better they will taste. Some easy curing strains may be cured well enough to enjoy after three months but others may take years. To smoke it, the leaves should be shredded before smoking. You can do this using a common kitchen blender. Most people prefer to make cigarettes using pre-made paper tubes with a filter attached. The tubes are then stuffed using the shredded tobacco.
What would you say is your favourite thing about growing your own tobacco?
I find gardening and producing my own goods very satisfying.
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