Growing her own tobacco in Brooklyn [UPDATED]
Photo: NancyThe time when having a chicken in your Brooklyn backyard was interesting has long since passed. I mean, heck, everybody has chickens these days, right? Or at least bees. Maybe even red bees.
But even in a borough where hipsters regularly tote hoes up to rooftops to tend rows of heirloom cranberry beans, one crop can still surprise: Tobacco.
That’s right, Audrey Silk is growing her own to roll her own, and she’s decided she doesn’t care who knows it. After keeping her harvest a secret for a couple of seasons, Silk — who is no hipster or starry-eyed urban agriculture devotee — decided to come out in The New York Times:
[F]or Ms. Silk, 46, a retired police officer and the founder of New York City Clash (Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment), a smokers’ rights group, it is not just about the money. It is about the message. In the state with the highest cigarette taxes in the country, in a city that has become one of the hardest places in America to find a place to smoke, Ms. Silk has gone off the grid, growing, processing and smoking her own tax-free cigarettes from packets of seeds she buys online for about $2. She expects to produce a total of 45 cartons after planting two crops — the first in the summer of 2009, the second last summer — and estimates that she will have saved more than $5,000.
“It’ll make the antismokers apoplectic,” said Ms. Silk. “They’re using the power of taxation to coerce behavior. That’s not what taxation is supposed to be for.”
Well, I’d have to count myself in the antismoker camp. I have directly benefited from the city’s aggressive policies banning cigarettes in many public places — now I can go to a bar or restaurant and not come home stinking of smoke and wheezing. So Silk and I would be at odds about that. (I was a very enthusiastic teenage smoker myself, until I came down with pneumonia one too many times and quit, agonizingly, at 16.)
But contrary to what Silk might think, I’m cheering for her and her backyard tobacco plantation. She’s growing the stuff from seed, and there’s a lot of labor involved in getting to the final product. It’s not just nurturing the seedlings, transplanting them, and tending the plants through the season with daily watering. Then she has to wash and dry the leaves, let them age, and hand-shred them — all before she can ever get to the point of whipping out the rolling papers and sprinkling in her very own product. It can only be a good thing to take time preparing the things you put in your mouth. (I put a call in to Silk to find out if she’s been smoking fewer cigs as a result of all that hard work, but have yet to hear back.)
Silk told the Times she’s worried that the city will pass regulations against growing your own tobacco, and that “black helicopters” will soon be hovering over her yard. I sincerely hope she’s wrong. It may not be great for her health, but in the end, that’s her business. And I applaud her putting down the Parliaments, her favored brand. No more industrially produced tobacco, no more butt litter — Silk’s solution makes smoking seem almost wholesome.
Hey, Audrey — light one up for me, willya?
Update: I talked to Silk on the phone this afternoon, and she told me that she is smoking as many cigarettes as she ever has, supplementing her harvest with store-bought loose tobacco when she needs to. I asked her if she’s using any pesticides or fertilizers to grow her tobacco, and she told me she isn’t. She keeps an eye out for tobacco budworms by going out at night with a stick and a flashlight (which her neighbors think is pretty funny) and has started composting to give the plants the nutrition they need. “I’m not green,” she said with a laugh. “But I guess this has gotten me hooked. I love to garden.”