Snus is Sweden's most misunderstood tobacco product, at least from a foreign perspective. Despite being labelled as "food" in its home nation, where it's considered – by consumers – a national pride and keystone in the country's culture (18 percent of Sweden's men, but only about four percent of women, consume it), snus is limited within the borders of Scandinavia. According to EU law, it's illegal to export snus to other EU-countries – regardless of the fact that it doesn't cause nearly as many deaths as cigarettes do. And it's pretty safe to say that a consumer of snus doesn't bother anyone with second-hand smoke or smelly clothes.
In spite of its long history, popularity, and the straightforward process of making snus, not many consumers seem to be aware of the fact that it's perfectly possible to grow and make your own, eco-friendly stuff to put under your lip. Per Englund is a photographer (and VICE contributor) with a long habit of consuming ground, moist tobacco. Having had a long break from snus, Per decided that the only way for him to start consuming snus again, was to grow his own tobacco, process it, and make the amount of snus that could take care of his habit for a year. As a result, the project pretty much took over his life for the past two and a half years. Fortunately, it has now brought about a book that, apart from being a lovely work of photography, is a diary and step-by-step guide of how to grow your own tobacco and make your own snus. I called Per to find out how the hell it's possible for tobacco to take over your entire life.
VICE: Yo Per, what's up?
Per Englund: All good – I have a lot to do over here, but that's how it is when you've made a book.
Wait. What? How much is there to do now when the book is done?
I've made some films, and books need to be delivered to odlingsmässan [Nordic Gardens], where I will be lecturing and then there's the release – DJs need to be booked and stuff like that.
I was about to ask you if you feel all empty and lost now when you've finished the book, but it doesn't sound like that at all.
[Laughs] No, it would have been great to be able to feel like that – looking at the project in itself it feels a bit like that. Maybe it's more of a relief than anything else.
So what happens now? Will you take all this to the next level now? Become a professor or something?
No. I think this very thing is just about done now. It was an experiment from the beginning, an investigation really. It wasn't about me having ambitions to become a tobacco farmer.
But that's exactly what you've become now.
Yeah, and it's now when I'm done with all this that it officially begins in a way. I mean I'm already into my next book and people are starting to be interested in this project. But obviously I want to manage this [tobacco farmer] role for a bit.
Looking at homemade snus from a superficial point of view, it's very much a symbol for Sweden's uber-hipsters.
Oh yeah, definitely. And I'm very much aware of that. That's something of this day and age.
I think you can lean back on the fact that you've taken the snus making several steps further though compared with, say, the snus boys of SoFo who might be growing their own tobacco on their Södermalm balconies.
Yeah – things I do always end up at the extreme. There's never anything in the middle, either all or nothing. I didn't imagine for it to become this big: that it'd take three years from idea to the final book.
However, that I was making a book was a condition for it to happen at all. But there were never any thoughts for it to be made lightly and there were never any thoughts about doing this to show off or something. It all came down to that I wanted to [consume] snus again and I didn't want it to be easy. So I figured that "well then I'll make it really damn difficult for myself" and learn something along the way.
When we met for the very first time, both of us talked about growing tobacco at home. But I can't remember you saying anything about how you'd end up making a book out of it and that it would eventually take over your entire life.
No [laughs] I didn't exactly count for it to take over my entire life. I can't remember where exactly in the process I was when you and I talked about it, but it was in the very beginning, so maybe I just didn't talk about the book. The idea about making a book came at the same time as I got the idea to... Or actually, I kept a diary about my thoughts and my research, as well as about my successes and failures. So it didn't take long before I realised that "damn, I'm making a book!" So I think it was a combination of different things as well as the fact that I always think about my projects in the shape of books.
For how long were you without snus before you got to consume your own?
I had already been off snus for quite some time and wanted to start again. I decided that for me to be allowed to start with it agan I had to grow my own tobacco and make my own snus. Honestly though, from reading about it and growing the plants I got huge cravings so it didn't exactly last...
Say what? Did you buy snus? Cheater.
No. I made snus! I bought tobacco and made my own snus – not from my own tobacco. This made me want snus from scratch even more. So instead of looking at it as a failure, I convinced myself that it was practice. I wanted to practice on making snus before my own harvest was ready. You know so I wouldn't end up making mistakes with my own harvest. So yeah, I made snus from purchased tobacco, which I was allowed to snus.
Do you remember how that tasted compared to your own tobacco?
That was fucking great. Although I don't know how much that had to do with the feeling that I had made the snus myself, not entirely, but you know. Maybe it had to to with the act of making it, similarly to baking or cooking food. Not that you could entirely equalise it with that, but yeah it was good snus. But then again, you can't compare it with the snus I made from my own harvest. It's lovely that my own harvest turned out even better.
How many harvests have you farmed now?
Two. The third is about to begin now. I'll be growing tobacco this year too, but not to the same extent as before. That's impossible.
How many hours have you put into this?
Ouff... [laughs] I don't even dare to think about that. Well, how much time can you put into something during two and a half years?
Yeah – if I've got this right – you received a snus related scholarship so you could go to Greece for a while...
Yeah, it was a scholarship from the Association of Swedish Professional Photographers so it was photo related. I applied for it with my snus project and the city, Kavala, which I visited is this old tobacco city. The house I lived in is the old Swedish Tobacco Monopoly's residency. It was great hanging out in this city. That's where I photographed with my snus box cameras, which are of the camera obscura principle. They're pinhole cameras that I loaded with film. So with 18 exposures, I brought the tobacco inside the snus boxes. I photographed with these cameras inside the old tobacco warehouses, and that connection is in the book, too. You can find the photos in the book.
But looking at how much time I've spent on this – it's impossible to count!
I think it's fantastic!
If anything, it's insane!
I was about to grow my own tobacco and make my own cigarettes, but then your project completely destroyed my ambition and I felt pretty shitty in comparison... How big of a cropland do you have?
It's not that big actually. It's 40 square metres. So it's just an area of eight times five metres. The soil was completely uncultivated and I had never grown anything in my entire life. So I just dug out that little square and messed up my back with lumbago and disc prolapse – I don't even know all the things that happened... I have no idea how I went through with all this really. But it happened, which I guess is all thanks to good ol' will and my urge to experiment.
Yeah, I've been wondering what your motivation behind all of this has been. Is it your tobacco addiction? Has it been to make the ultimate book? Or a combination of Per the addict and Per the photographer? I can't get my head around how it didn't bore you after the first round.
Well it did bore me from time to time. It's been extremely pleasurable as well as it's been extremely fucking consuming, for sure. I decided early on to talk loads about it and tell everybody what the hell I was doing. And that I was making a book, and that I was going to become snus self-sufficient. If I say something out loud I can't go back. To talk about it was a conscious strategy, which is something I normally don't do. But in that way I couldn't pull out. The shame would have been too big [laughs].
Has this project had any affect on your relationships?
Yes. Love relationships if anything. It's solved now though. But yeah, definitely. It's been a bumpy ride, to say the least.
Looking back – was it worth it?
Yes. But then again, I wish I had done some things differently. But when you're almost manic at certain periods and go into something with such a force, it's difficult to not have tunnel vision. So yeah, obviously I should have done things differently, but looking at the end result it all turned out well!
So if this year's harvest is your last, for how many years ahead will you be snus self-sufficient?
I had 90 plants the first season, which provided me with abut 5-600 boxes of loose snus. I [consume] about one box a day, so that gave me quite a lot. I've tried to figure out how much I need to grow to be able to snus for a year, 'cause that was the initial goal. That's actually what's interesting with all this considering that this isn't something I've done for business purposes. I calculated that I needed 70 plants to have snus for a year, which I had last year. But I haven't ground it all yet, so it's difficult to say. Let's just say I have enough.
Do you have plans to quit?
Hell yeah! This all started with me being allowed to [consume] snus again so the natural ending to this project was to quit once I had proven that it was possible to maintain my habit for one year. But it feels like it's too soon for that now so I'm pushing that to the future.
I can see why. Is there anything that you wish someone had told you before this project began?
No, not at all. Something that was fun with this was that I didn't know jack shit about anything when I started. Everything was completely new for me. I didn't even know tobacco could grow in Sweden! I didn't know if it was legal to grow, I didn't know anything about the Swedish tobacco history, which is amazing, and which the Tobacco Museum is writing about in the preface of my book – I was completely blank! I don't think I would have considered it interesting if I had known more about it beforehand. It was a voyage of discovery in a way.
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