When we first started growing tobacco, we were afraid of what others might think. However, we knew we wouldn’t be selling it for smoking purposes, and homegrown tobacco is a versatile product. It can give wonderful flavor to your dishes when you bake with it, juice it, and even boil it for tea. It can also lend a helping hand in the garden as an insecticide if used properly.
So we set out to grow and harvest Virginia heirloom tobacco. We didn’t have a particular reason as to why we chose the Virginia variety. The seed company we bought from (SurfMonkeyCoconut.com) offered three types: Connecticut, Virginia and Hawaii. We just picked one, and it turned out to be a great producer.
Because it is legal in our state to grow as much tobacco as we want as long as it is for personal use only, we ordered 100 seeds, just in case all of the seeds didn’t germinate.
Watch Them Grow
We learned two valuable lessons during the first germination process: Follow directions, and wait patiently. Both seemed to be hard for us, as we liked to think we knew best, and patience is just plain difficult when you are excited to see the end product. On our first attempt, we thought we could speed up the process by using grow lights. After a couple of weeks under the grow lights and despite constantly misting the seeds, the heat was too much, and the soil was too dry for the seeds to develop.
Our second attempt was a success and produced many sprouts. We kept the seeds covered and in a dark, moist, cool location. After just one week we started to see sprouts. It was exciting. Even though we pampered these sprouts, it would be another three to four weeks before we would begin transplanting the sprouts to larger containers and eventually into the ground. When all was said and done, we planted around 50 tobacco plants. Once planted in the ground, they began to grow fast.
We watched as the tobacco grew without problems. While our cauliflower and kale was being eaten rabbits, sunflowers by the deer, peanuts by the turkeys, and our melons taken by groundhogs, we noticed nothing wanted the tobacco. Our tomatillos had beetles and our potatoes and crosnes had grub worms, yet the tobacco leaves were left intact. We became very curious and began to research why this might be. Could we use this as an insecticide? Yes. Bugs hate the nicotine in the tobacco and it repels them from the site. The recipe for tobacco insecticide is quite simple.
1. Mix 1 cup of fresh tobacco leaves with 1 gallon of water.
2. Let the mixture sit in the sun until the water turns the color of brewed tea (light brown).
3. Place in a spray bottle and mist over the plants you want to protect.
Most of our aphid problems subsided by the time we had tobacco leaves to work with. However, we still had some beetles, stink bugs, gnats and flies. We tested the solution, and it worked great. All we needed to do next was to get it in the soil to deal with those pesky grub worms. To do this we take leaves from the tobacco plant, rip them into smaller pieces, mix into compost or mulch, and sprinkle around the crops.
Cooking with Tobacco
Tobacco leaves are plentiful on a healthy plant. As the leaves turn yellow, harvest them and hang them upside down in a well-ventilated shed for drying. The drying process can take up to six weeks. When they are completely dry, you can use it for cooking and medicinal purposes.
Tobacco can bring out some interesting flavors in wild game, especially rabbit and venison. I had the idea to try this when marketing our produce to chefs in nearby Washington, D.C. One chef had heard we were growing tobacco and was interested in buying some for cooking. He told me the best and simplest way to cook with tobacco is to use the whole leaf.
Rest assured, your food will not taste or smell like a cigarette, and you won’t catch a buzz from eating the meat cooked in tobacco. Tobacco brings out the flavors of other seasonings and of the meat itself, and it gives the food a unique “wild” flavor. See our recipe, Wild Game Wrapped in Tobacco.
Tobacco in the Medicine Cabinet
An old-fashioned home remedy uses chewing tobacco on cuts, burns and insect bites to relieve pain and itching. We’ve learned that tobacco coated with chemicals doesn’t have the same benefits as the unadulterated version. If you use natural, unprocessed tobacco leaves mixed with a little water, you will get good results.
Additionally, fresh tobacco can be used for minor aches, such as a toothache or earache, by placing a wet leaf on the aching area. It also acts as a diuretic and can be consumed as a tea. Small amounts of nicotine act as a muscle relaxer, however it is also known to increase heart rate and blood pressure. A little goes a long way.
As far as animals go, I haven’t had to test this next remedy yet, but I’ll most likely encounter it at some point on the farm. Tobacco can be used to get rid of digestive or gastrointestinal tract worms and parasites in farm animals, if used in correct doses. If your farm animals are having parasitic problems in their digestive tracts, feed them a little tobacco. Again, worms and bugs hate nicotine, so it makes sense that eating a little tobacco will help repel pests.
First consult a veterinarian first to make sure you are treating the correct problem. The important thing to remember here is to not overfeed your animal tobacco, as too much nicotine can cause illness or death. Crush a leaf into small pieces and feed your animal a small amount of it; just enough to get a little bit of nicotine to the pests waiting for their next meal. It’s a great idea to consult your veterinarian on the appropriate dose as well.
For projects that require plants or herbs, tobacco can be used instead, from making lotions and candles to creating papier mâché bowls. Use websites like Pinterest to get a few ideas. If a craft requires another plant material, try tobacco. If you make soaps, try your next batch using tobacco. Use tobacco leaves as paint or ink stamps for artwork. The cured leaf makes a great product to use in paper crafts. You can even use the leaf as a canvas for painting. My favorite décor project is to simply preserve and frame the leaf, and hang it on the wall.
Tobacco for Sale
The rules and regulations regarding the sale of processed tobacco are strict, so if you decide to sell your homegrown tobacco, you must do your homework. This means talking to the right contacts at the local, state and federal levels. Call your conservation district and the local university agricultural extension office. Be sure to talk to your State Department of Agriculture, and the United States Department of Agriculture. Make sure to contact the Federal Department of Agriculture, especially if you want to transport the tobacco across state lines. Depending on the state in which you reside, there will be specific permits and applications to complete and strict rules to follow.
Some states allow you to sell tobacco plants or products that are not altered in any way. For instance, it may be legal to sell the seeds, the whole tobacco plant, or the whole leaves of the tobacco plant. Once you cut or chop the leaf in any way, it becomes a processed product and must be regulated and permitted by the government.
As with most things in life, there is a positive and a negative side to tobacco. Adhere to the rule of thumb “everything in moderation,” and you can enjoy the benefits of homegrown tobacco. For us, we have chosen to taken the positive aspects and make them beneficial to our family and farm.
For some homemade tobacco recipes, see:
Make a batch of organic comfrey fertilizer tea to give your garden a healthy dose of nutrients.
Susanne Reed graduated from the University of Mississippi with a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and a Master's in Educational Psychology. She currently lives in Big Cove Tannery, Pennsylvania. She and her family operate Reed Farms, growing and selling over 50 varieties of produce to their CSA members and at their produce stand.