View attachment 19454 The cigarettes Audrey Silk used to smoke — Parliament Lights — are made at a factory in Richmond, Va. The cigarettes she smokes these days are made and grown in Brooklyn, at her house.
Ms. Silk’s backyard is home to raspberry and rose bushes, geraniums, impatiens and 100 tobacco plants in gardening buckets near her wooden deck. Inside her house, around the corner from Flatbush Avenue, in Marine Park, she has to be careful stepping into her basement — one wrong move could ruin her cigarettes. Dozens of tobacco leaves hang there, drying on wires she has strung across the room, where they turn a crisp light brown as they age above a stack of her old Springsteen records.
She talks about cartons and packs in relation to crops and seeds. Planted in 2009, her first crop— 25 plants of Golden Seal Special Burley tobacco — produced nine cartons of cigarettes. Ms. Silk would have spent more than $1,000 had she bought nine cartons in parts of New York City. Instead, she spent $240, mostly for the trays, the buckets and plant food.
View attachment 19455 But for 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.”
There are no federal, state or city laws prohibiting New Yorkers from growing tobacco at home for personal consumption. Still, Ms. Silk has kept her homegrown tobacco a secret for the most part since she planted the first crop, though she has offered cigarettes to her boyfriend and a few neighbors. This month, however, she changed her position on keeping quiet, after the City Council approved a bill banning smoking at parks, beaches and pedestrian plazas.
“The only way we’re going to win now, since you can’t reason with the irrational, which is the City Council or any lawmakers,” Ms. Silk said, “is you have to take the position of giving them the finger.”
Though she has become more vocal about her tobacco, she remains apprehensive. She said that she worried that antismoking advocates and the Bloomberg administration, which pushed to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, would make homegrown tobacco their next target. “We fear that the antismokers are so hysterical that if they start finding that people are doing this, they would craft a law to make it illegal,” Ms. Silk said. “I’m waiting for the black helicopters to start flying over my yard.”
Jim Johnson, the president of Seedman.com, the company based in Mississippi that supplied Ms. Silk with her seeds, was not surprised to learn that the Golden Seal tobacco had done well in the Brooklyn sunshine. He said that tobacco would grow anywhere there were about 100 frost-free nights, and that he even had customers in Alaska. Mr. Johnson said tobacco was “a very tough, resilient plant.”
If there are other New York City smokers growing tobacco at home, they appear to be keeping it to themselves. Ms. Silk does not know anyone else in the city who does so. But they are out there: Mr. Johnson estimated that last year, he had more than 1,000 tobacco-seed customers in the New York City region.
Ms. Silk sat in the house she shared with Bingo, her dog, and Albert, her parrot, and pulled a cigarette from a Parliament Lights pack. “Don’t let this fool you,” she said. “I put my roll-your-owns in here. I just saved all my old Parliament boxes.”
Ms. Silk was smoking loose tobacco she had bought. She is in a lull in production: she finished smoking her first crop and has been too busy to prepare her second. The delay works to her advantage. “If I want a better flavor,” she said, “the longer I can leave it, the better it is.”
Growing tobacco saves Ms. Silk money, but costs her time.
She has to plant the virtually microscopic seeds in trays indoors and then, weeks later, transplant them to buckets outside. She waters the plants daily until they grow to be about five feet tall, with big leaves that droop from the stem. “Like elephant ears,” Ms. Silk said of the leaves. “That’s why, when people joke around and say, ‘They’re going to think you’re growing pot,’ I’m like: ‘I’m sorry. There’s no one mistaking this for pot.’ ”
Then there is the processing: washing leaves in her kitchen sink, drying them over the downstairs tub, hanging them in the basement, storing some in boxes she keeps in a walk-in closet, removing the middle vein from each leaf, forming bricks out of about 25 leaves and feeding those bricks into a hand-crank machine for shredding. After planting her 2009 crop, Ms. Silk had to wait several months before smoking her first cigarette from it. The authorities, she added, should not be concerned that she might be illegally selling her cigarettes.
“I make meatballs,” Ms. Silk said, by way of explanation. “My recipe is a four-hour ordeal. My biggest loved ones do not get any. When I have to put a lot of work into something, I don’t share.”
The 100 plants from her second crop are not much to look at now: mostly bare stems standing upright in the cold. Still, her Brooklyn tobacco is a source of pride, as both a green-thumb accomplishment and a political statement. She has even named her garden in honor, or dishonor, of someone important in her life: not her boyfriend, her dog or her parrot, but her mayor.
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
Published: February 24, 2011
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