Next to the tomato vines and pansies, Betty Hazuza set out some small tobacco plants for sale in her family’s Rillton greenhouse two years ago.
“Whenever cigarette prices got to be out of this world, we figured more people would want to try and grow some,” she said.
On April 1, 2009, taxes went up $7 on a carton of cigarettes and nearly $24 per pound on loose tobacco. Smokers now shell out on average $5.39 for a pack of cigarettes in Pennsylvania, the 20th highest in the nation, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. That includes $1.60 in state taxes and $1.01 in federal taxes.
Hazuza figured right. Frustrated about digging deeper into their pockets for cigarette money, some smokers have started planting tobacco in their backyards.
The Hazuzas have sold about 100 tobacco plants in each of the last two seasons. This year, they have 250 plants of two tobacco varieties sprouting at their Sewickley Township greenhouse. They bought 200-seed packets for $6.95 from a British company and will sell plants for $2 each.
Jim Weinberg, owner of Organica Seed Co. in Massachusetts, sells packets of about 60 tobacco seeds for $12.50 to home gardeners across the country. He said the heirloom seed company saw tobacco sales double last year to 5,000, up from 2,500 orders in 2009.
“I think that because of the economy, people are trying to save money wherever they can,” he said. “People are just very resourceful.”
Growing tobacco for personal use is not regulated or taxed by the state, said Jeff Graybill, an educator with the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County.
The federal government regulates the sale of manufactured products, such as cigars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Whole-leaf tobacco is not taxed.
Each plant produces about three-quarters of a pound of tobacco, and a single pound can produce about 40 packs of cigarettes, said Dennis Hess, a commercial tobacco grower for 20 years in Lititz, Lancaster County. The county produces 8,000 of the 9,000 acres of commercial tobacco planted each year in Pennsylvania.
While the process is labor-intensive, a person could grow about 20 plants and make enough cigarettes to smoke more than one pack per day for a year, he said.
Don Carey of Peninsula, Ohio, just north of Akron, put in his first tobacco crop after the 2009 federal tax increases, growing 7,000 plants on about an acre of ground.
Carey said he has saved thousands of dollars on cigarettes, although he could not give a precise number since he also is invested in contract growing for others and has spent time experimenting with different types of tobacco to produce a better-tasting cigarette.
“Growing home-grown tobacco is like comparing home-grown tomatoes to store-bought tomatoes,” he said. “Very little regard is given to the taste. It’s more about the yield.”
While the tobacco seeds and plants are significantly cheaper than the finished product, home-grown tobacco takes time and nurturing to successfully be used for cigarettes.
“Somebody would have to be awfully committed to do it as a hobby, I think,” said Hess, former manager of the Pennsylvania Tobacco Marketing Association, a co-op of growers disbanded in 2003.
Tobacco plants are easy to grow but are susceptible to frost and need warm temperatures, which is why the crop is more prevalent in the South, Hess said.
The Hazuzas, both nonsmokers, said they grew tobacco plants with ease when they tested a few in their own garden last summer.
“We didn’t treat them with anything at all and they grew to be 6 feet tall,” Greg Hazuza said.
The process can be compared to brewing beer, said Lisa Fleck of Girard, Ohio, part owner of Tightwad Tobacco, a chain of tobacco outlets, and Tobacco Outlet Express, a distributor of roll-your-own cigarette machines, both based in New Castle.
“It matters to what degree you want to take it,” she said. “It would be like people who buy a beer in the store, or you can buy all the components to make beer at home.
“Taking it one step further, growing your own tobacco would be like someone growing their own hops and barley and grains. That would be the most time-consuming, but the most cost-effective if they don’t mind waiting,” she added.
Home-grown cigarettes taste harsher than commercial cigarettes because they don’t have additives, Carey said.
The key to a good smoke is in the curing, according to experts.
Plants bought in Southwestern Pennsylvania in mid-May would grow until November when they would need to be harvested and the leaves hung to dry in order to cure, Hess said.
Two types cured differently are most often used in cigarettes. Flue-cured tobacco takes seven to 10 days and needs heat and humidity to dry individual leaves that have been stripped from the plants. Burley tobacco takes two to four months without humidity and can be hung and dried as an entire plant.
Robert Gehrmann of Crafton has started 15 tobacco plants in pots and in a garden plot outside his home. Like Carey, this will be his third season growing the large-leafed plants.
While he initially wanted to save money on cigarettes, he found the process too time-intensive.
“I’ve tried to dry it,” he said. “I tried to put it in a pipe, and it wouldn’t even burn.”
Now, as the Pennsylvania representative for the Citizens Freedom Alliance and Smokers Club International, a smokers rights group, he said he continues growing tobacco as a conversation piece and a symbolic gesture of defiance of the amount of tax responsibility placed on smokers.
“This is about freedom; it’s not about much else,” he said.