Smokers try the garden variety

CORINTH – Something unusual is cropping up alongside the tomatoes, eggplant and okra in Scott Byars’ vegetable garden – the elephantine leaves of 30 tobacco plants.
On the 40-acre farm where he and wife, Cecilia, live in the Kendrick community of Alcorn County, Byars is among a growing number of tobacco users who have turned their green thumbs to cultivate their own tobacco plants.
Byars, who smokes cigars, normally pays $5 for a five-pack of cigars and $3 for a tin of snuff; the seed cost him $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 federal tax on cigarettes went up 62 cents to $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.
Since then, Mississippi’s cigarette tax as risen from 18 cents to 68 cents per pack, and on top of that there is a 7 percent sales tax.
Nationally, 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 $4.35 a pack; home growers can make that amount for about 30 cents.
“When I started out, money really wasn’t a big factor,” said Byars, who has worked at Automatic Machine Products in Corinth in the engineering department for 23 years. “I wanted to see if I could get a usable product, and it has been more successful than I expected. I’m growing strictly for cigars, and so far it has exceeded my expectations.”
His plants are in their second curing cycle and he should be able to use the tobacco by October.
“It has to hang for six to eight weeks initially, then it’s stacked and left to cure for at least another couple of months,” said Byars, who rolls his own. “Most cigar tobacco is aged for several years, but I didn’t grow enough to put it back to age that long.”
Though getting the plants started was a little more trouble than he expected, Byars feels confident enough that he expects to put 75-100 plants in the ground next year.
He also used a few of the plants as ornamentals, allowing them to develop their purple and white trumpet-like flowers.
“Our hummingbirds seem to like them pretty well,” he said, “but I hope I haven’t hooked them on tobacco.”

A Northeast Mississippi crop?
Alcorn and Tishomingo Counties are as far north as you can get in Mississippi, and Tishomingo County Extension Director Danny Owens said these northern counties are probably the best ones in the state for a successful tobacco crop.
“We really don’t have the right climate, so haven’t had any questions about it down here,” Owens said. “Northern Tennessee is the closest area where it is grown, and I’d contact the agents in that area if I had questions about it.”
Byars’ own experience of tobacco growing comes from Martin, Tenn., along Highway 45 north of Jackson, Tenn., just shy of the Kentucky state line.
“My father was born in 1907 and grew up on a tobacco farm in a little community north of Martin, Tenn., so I grew up around it,” Byars said. “A lot of people around Martin would raise small amounts of tobacco for their own use. I had seen it grown and had toyed with the idea for several years.”
The plants, which grow a couple of feet long and about a foot wide, are planted about three feet apart, requiring about the same space as a tomato plant.
When Byars’ first plants were put in the ground in May there was a brief dry spell and he had to water a time or two.
“After that they were OK on their own,” 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.
There would be no tax implications in Mississippi as long as Byars grows the tobacco only for his personal use, said Tax Commission spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury.
“The tax is on sale and distribution of tobacco,” Waterbury said. “But it is a controlled substance, so it cannot go to a minor, and cannot be given as a gift, since a gift is considered the same as selling. It must be personal use only.”
Seedman.com, where Byars bought his seeds, 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 company, based on the Mississippi Coast, offers 40 varieties of tobacco from around the globe and packages various flavor blends for first-time growers.
“I bought a particular variety suitable for cigars,” Byars said, “but someone interested in cigarettes would need to buy a different variety.”

Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com

About homegrown tobacco
• It is no safer than commercially produced tobacco products, according to the American Cancer Society.
• It can contain fungus and mold, which can cause chronic bronchitis and other ailments, per the ACS.
• It doesn’t worry tobacco industry giants because they don’t see it as a mass movement, says a tobacco industry analyst with Morningstar.

Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal & Steve Szkotak/The Associated Press