Photo by Terry Wild Stock
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 add wonderful flavor to your dishes when you bake with it, juice it, or even boil it for tea. It can also lend a helping hand in the garden as an insecticide.
So, we set out to grow and harvest Virginia heirloom tobacco. We didn’t choose the Virginia variety for any particular reason. The seed company we chose offered three types: Connecticut, Virginia, and Hawaii. We just picked one, and, luckily, it turned out to be a great producer. Because it’s legal in our state to grow as much tobacco as we want, as long as the tobacco is for personal use only, we ordered 100 seeds, just in case all the seeds didn’t germinate.
Tobacco acts as a natural insecticide, making it a great solution for ridding your garden of pests. Photo by Carol Jacobs Norwood
Watch Them Grow
We learned two valuable lessons during the first germination process: Follow directions, and wait patiently. Both were hard for us, as we liked to think we knew best, and patience is just plain difficult when you’re 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 even though we misted the seeds often, 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 one week, we started to see sprouts. It was exciting. Even though we pampered the sprouts, we had to wait another three or four weeks before we could begin transplanting them 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 issues. While our cauliflower and kale was being eaten by rabbits, our sunflowers by deer, our peanuts by turkeys, and our melons by groundhogs, we noticed that 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 curious and began to research why this might be. Could we use tobacco as an insecticide?
Yes. We discovered that bugs hate the nicotine in tobacco, and it repels them from the site. The recipe for tobacco insecticide is quite simple:
- Mix 1 cup fresh tobacco leaves with 1 gallon water.
- Let the mixture sit in the sun until the water turns the color of brewed tea (light brown).
- Place it in a spray bottle, and mist 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 tobacco solution to deter them, and it worked great. All we needed to do next was put tobacco in the soil to deal with those pesky grub worms. To do this, we took leaves from the tobacco plant, ripped them into smaller pieces, mixed them into compost and mulch, and sprinkled them around the crops.
Ventilation is important while drying tobacco leaves. If drying is required for your intended use, good ventilation will help prevent mold growth and result in a shorter drying time. Photo by Norm Eggert
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’re completely dry, you can use them 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 that the best and simplest way to cook with tobacco is to use the whole leaf.
Rest assured, your food won’t taste or smell like a cigarette, and you won’t catch a buzz from eating 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 “Wild Game Wrapped in Tobacco,” below.
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’ll get good results.
You can use fresh tobacco for minor aches, such as a toothache or earache, by placing a wet leaf on the aching area. Tobacco acts as a diuretic and can be consumed as a tea. Small amounts of nicotine act as a muscle relaxer; however, nicotine is also known to increase heart rate and blood pressure. A little goes a long way.
Tobacco can be used in crafts from making lotions and candles to creating papier-mâché bowls. 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 your local university’s agricultural extension office. Be sure to talk to your state’s Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, especially if you want to transport the tobacco across state lines. Depending on the state in which you reside, you’ll have to apply for specific permits and follow strict rules.
Some states allow you to sell tobacco plants or products that aren’t 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. However, 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’s 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. We’ve chosen to taken the positive aspects and apply them to our family and farm.
Nicotine is readily absorbed through the skin. Handling the leaves may have health consequences for some people. — Mother
Susanne Reed graduated from the University of Mississippi with a doctorate 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 more than 50 varieties of produce to their CSA members and at their produce stand.
Wild Game Wrapped in Tobacco Recipe
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
- 1 pound wild game, cubed.
- Fresh vegetables, cut into small pieces (fingerling carrots, onions, peppers, garlic, potaotes, etc.)
- Olive oil or butter, for sautéing, and to coat each tobacco leaf.
- Fresh whole tobacco leaves.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large bowl, combine meat and vegetables.
- Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add and sauté meat and vegetables for 5 to 7 minutes, or until vegetables begin to brown. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.
- Spread tobacco leaves on a baking sheet, and coat leaves with butter or oil. Fill leaves with meat and vegetable mixture. Tuck in sides, and wrap leaf around mixture. Don’t overstuff; you want to be able to wrap the leaf completely around the mixture.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or until meat is cooked thoroughly, checking temperature periodically.
- Remove from oven, and cool slightly. Unwrap mixture and serve. The tobacco will leave a delicious flavor behind in the filling.
Tobacco Candy Recipe
- 3 cups sugar or honey
- 1 cup tobacco tea
- 1 cup light corn syrup
- Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and stir continuously until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Continue to cook without stirring until a candy thermometer reaches 290 degrees Fahrenheit, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Place wax paper on a baking sheet or other flat surface. Pour mixture onto wax paper and allow to cool completely.
- Once cooled, break candy into pieces using your hands or a small hammer.