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Tom Chaney: Organic Tobacco or Hosannas to the Herb Divine

Tom reports on the Sante Fe Natural Tobacco Company which seeks to avoid chemicals and make a product similar to the tobacco consumed a hundred or so years ago. This column first appeared 1 November 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Welcome to Catfish Bend

By Tom Chaney

My erstwhile editor, partner, brother-in-law came in The Bookstore t'other day and flung a promising book my way. I never know whether he is trying to brain me or give me a book I ought to either sell or read or all three.

After I recovered from a direct hit, I picked up the bookish missile. As I browsed the tome, I realized it had some potential although it was a book written by an industry touting itself. The book is Organic Tobacco Growing in America: and Other Earth-Friendly Farming by Mike Little, Fielding Daniel, Mark Smith, and Jim Haskins. Published by the Sunstone Press of Santa Fe, New Mexico, it is an unabashed account of the work of the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company in getting tobacco on the market free of chemicals.

I can only laud their aim.

For decades tobacco advertising seemed to tout a product that fit the old slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry." From the seed to harvest the growth of the soothing weed was bathed in chemicals. We used to burn our plant beds to kill the unwanted weeds, but later we covered the bed with plastic and sprayed herbicide to do the same job.

The use of chemical fertilizer began in the seed bed and continued into the patch where the arcane mixtures of nitrogen, potash, and other stuff was larded on to force excessive growth.

As the plant neared maturity, we used to walk every row, snapping the blooming tops from each plant and squishing every tobacco worm. Then the suckering process began. Back we went to every plant to pinch off the little suckers at the base of each valuable leaf. How we all rejoiced at the introduction of MH 30 which killed the suckers with a spray.

By the time the leaf is ready to be sold, think how many chemicals have been added. The chemistry does not stop there. We have gradually learned of the 'enhancements' being added in the manufacturing process. Flavors are added. Additional nicotine is used to increase the possibility of addiction to the delightful weed.

The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company avoids these chemical processes to produce a product which must be similar to tobacco consumed a century or more ago.

All the details are not necessary here, but let me sketch a bit of the process. First, the field in which the tobacco is grown must lie fallow for three or four years to chase out residual chemicals in the soil. The farmer must rely on organic fertilizer to nourish his crop. He will need to readjust his hands and arms to the goose neck hoe to take care of the weeds which will come up. He must return to suckering each plant and confronting each tobacco worm.

As a reward, the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company will pay a premium for his tobacco, and he will have saved a tremendous chemical and diesel charge.

These folks warn that the organic growing process does not make tobacco use a harmless process. Many of the dangers are still present. After all, smoking is a fine and efficient way to introduce nicotine into the body of the smoker.

I count myself as a temporarily reformed smoker. A doctor told me that I should 1) give up smoking 2) quit drinking 3) stop eating or 4) start going to Sunday School. I made a temporary choice of #1 about two and a half years ago. She gave me some interesting drugs to make stopping easier. They worked, although I was disappointed at the rather mild hallucinogenic effects of the drugs. I wanted a better ride.

For fifty years I had smoked a pipe only. I had cut back on that. I no longer smoked while in the shower or while asleep. Once in a while I indulged in a fine cigar, but I was too parsimonious to buy one. I smoked them only when they came as a gift. I did learn some decades ago not to get my hopes up when friends came proffering cigars upon the birth of some child or other. Usually fathers buy cheap, dry cigars.

The pipe was difficult to give up -- not because of the addiction -- the fine chemicals fixed that. Rather, it was such a part of me and my thought processes that even now I long for it. For years I taught much of what I did not know. Students would ask me questions the answers to which I had not a clue. In such circumstances fiddling with a pipe covered a multitude of ignorance. I would clean the bowl, scrape it out, put in new tobacco, light it two or three times. By then either some irrelevant but obscure response would have drifted into my mind, or the bell would have sounded for the end of class.

I am informed that one cannot smoke in class these days. How is it possible to teach literature or philosophy without wreaths of tobacco smoke billowing from the pipes or cigarets of student and faculty alike?

I miss the lighted pipe, but it was becoming more and more difficult to find a place to smoke without treading on the right of belching, farting, tuna eating, pot smoking, perfumed students who object to the wonders of tobacco fumes.

I want my doctor aided by pipe or cigaret to cogitate upon the vagaries of my health. How can a philosopher follow a line of thought which is not enshrouded by the mists of the wondrous weed?

I came to smoking late. I believe a cousin of mine turned to offer me a cigaret on a hay wagon when I was twelve. "I don't smoke," I answered. "Well! It's high time you did!" And she lit a fag and stuck it in my mouth. There was a bit of coughing, but I was off and running, rather, puffing, in one of the great pleasures of existence. That fall a fellow seventh grader and I hid Chesterfields, unfiltered, under the bleachers to smoke while we washed football uniforms in the Cave City gym.

Not quite the experience of Mark Twain who said he came into this world asking for a light and hoped to go out of it blowing smoke rings.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
 Box 73 / 111 Water Street
 Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
 Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-11-02 06:30:00
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