People pushing products or services contact me all the time asking me to write about X or link to Y. Typically I say “no thanks” but Bill Drake, the author of The Cultivator’s Handbook of Natural Tobacco, managed to capture my attention.
I don’t smoke tobacco, but I have to say the novelty of growing tobacco in my yard sounds entertaining, and I find it a rather attractive looking plant. We plant herbs that we never really use, but that I like the look/smell of, so what would be the difference with planting tobacco? It may not have a use for me, but I think in a collapsed economy or a nasty SHTF event, tobacco would have huge barter value for smokers. If I did smoke tobacco, I’d be all over growing it myself, a much better idea than buying the processed stuff (and paying huge taxes on it).
I told Bill I’d consider a guest post on the value of tobacco as a barter item. Following is his somewhat lengthy, but fully interesting (particularly from a historical perspective) piece.
I first discovered the power of tobacco as a tool for bartering when I was about ten years old, living in Stuttgart Germany. My Dad was an Army Officer and the year was 1949 – those were the days of Occupied Germany. The signs of the War were everywhere – bombed out buildings (with all the rubble neatly stacked inside the shells – this was Germany after all), destroyed tanks and bunkers in the woods where we played after school, and even really neat stuff (to a 10 year old) like Nazi helmets with bullet holes in them, the occasional rifle, pistol or hand grenade (some of those old ‘Potato Mashers’ actually still worked, as we found to our delight) and every imaginable piece of war junk scattered through the forests and ravines. Occasionally we also found a skeleton, or a part of one, and that too was gross, but cool. We used to take the bones to school to tease the girls with – until we got caught and were severely lectured about sacrilege, respect for the dead, and assorted other moral lessons that we tolerated, but still thought dead Nazis were excellent sport.
What we almost never found, however, was the REALLY cool stuff, like Nazi medals, daggers with swastikas, real guns that worked, helmets without holes – the good stuff. All that stuff was in junk shops downtown. I knew one really special place, run by “Herr Schmidt”, that was right next to the Bahnhof in central Stuttgart. I knew about it because that was where the bus let you off to go to Bad Cannstadt, where I used to go on weekends to play basketball at the Army gym there. I used to “miss” the bus and go hang out at Herr Schmidt’s shop and look wistfully at his absolutely fascinating collection of military stuff – not just Nazi stuff but a lot of really old swords, all kinds of guns including things like Walther P-38s and even old flintlocks, Prussian helmets with spikes on top – a ten year old’s dream! I couldn’t buy any of it because my allowance was in US military script, and it was a serious crime to exchange script for German money, and script could only be spent on the military bases like at the PX or the movies. Boy was I frustrated!
My Mom and Dad were both smokers. He smoked Camels, she smoked Luckies, and they smoked a lot! One day I was home after school and our housekeeper Heddy was doing her household chores and I happened to notice that when she came to the ashtray on the kitchen counter, she picked out the butts and slipped them into her apron pocket before emptying the ashes. When I asked her why she did that she turned red and got very flustered. “Please”, she begged me, “don’t tell your Mother or the Colonel about this or I’ll get in trouble.”
“Why would you get in trouble” I asked. “They’re all finished with those cigarettes – what do you do with them?” I had never seen Heddy smoke, so I was curious. She said that if I wouldn’t tell my parents she would tell me, so I promised. “I trade them for things I need” she told me, “like extra food, stockings, soap and other things I can’t afford.”
A light went on. “You mean people will trade you things you want for old smoked cigarette butts” I asked. “Yes, of course”, she answered, “American cigarettes are impossible to get unless you pay Black Market prices which nobody can afford.” Not wanting to cut into her smoked butts deal, I asked her what people would trade for a full pack of Camels. She rolled her eyes, and then looked frightened. “Billy, you mustn’t even think things like that. Your Father and Mother would be very angry, and besides it is against the law!” “But you trade cigarette butts for stuff,” I pointed out. “That’s different” she said, in the manner of adults everywhere.
Pretty soon I tried my hand at slipping just one cigarette out of a pack of my Dad’s Camels, just to see if he noticed. Evidently not, because pretty soon I was taking a cigarette every day or two, and stashing them in my room where my Mother never came – only Heddy to do the cleaning and straightening up. She never said anything, so I guess she didn’t find my stash, and pretty soon I had about half a pack. On a Saturday I fished a crumpled empty Camel pack out of the trash, straightened it out, put my little hoard of cigarettes into it and hid it in my gym bag.
Off to Bad Cannstad I went except, as you might guess, I never got there. I got off the bus and headed straight for good old Herr Schmidt’s shop. By then he knew me and although I had never bought anything he was always friendly. I walked around his shop, picking up a few things that I had had my eye on for some time – a really cool black and silver SS dagger, some very flashy medals, a pristine Nazi helmet, and a few other to-die-for things. Herr Schmidt watched me carefully – this was behavior he had never seen, and I knew he was worried that I was going to offer him script. When I had my goodies piled on the counter I asked him how much he wanted, and he gave me a little lecture about not being able to accept Ami script money because he would get in big trouble etc. I spoke a little German and he spoke a little English and we got along.
I reached into my gym bag and pulled out my stash of 10 of my Dad’s Camels and asked him if this would do. He gave me a big smile and, wise old guy that he was, he said sure, that will get you almost everything here except – my heart sank – except for the SS dagger. That is worth a whole pack alone, he said with a solemn face.
Of course he had me. I realize now that I probably should have had two packs of five cigarettes each in my bag and just pulled out one, but I was only ten and I was learning a set of major lessons like never show your hand until you’ve agreed on terms, etc. If I had been a little smarter I could have had the whole pile, including the SS dagger, for ten Camels, but I was trapped. Nothing to do but try to reason with the old guy. “I can’t take a whole pack – my Father would kill me! How about if I come back with another ten in a couple of weeks?”
Kindly old Herr Schmidt rumbled and hemmed and hawed and then – to my surprise – agreed. If I could bring him another ten Camels in no more than two weeks I could have the dagger. Thinking quickly now I asked “How about Lucky Strikes? Are they good too?” He beamed. “Camels or Lucky Strikes are all the same to me.” DEAL!
When I got home with my goodies I still had to explain to my parents how I had managed to acquire all this cool stuff, but I made up a story about trading some old war souvenirs I found in the woods for this stuff from a GI on base, and miracle of miracles – they bought it!
Thus began my life of crime. Years later, after my father had died and Mom was getting very old I told her the whole story and asked her if she or Dad had ever missed those cigarettes. She laughed and said that gradually they began to suspect that someone was poaching their cigarettes, and that they figured it was Heddy but since she was such a good person and a good housekeeper they never mentioned it.
Thus I learned the value of tobacco as a tool of barter in an economy gone to Hell – post-WWII Germany.
Without going into the global topic of how to prepare for survival under conditions of total social and economic collapse, let me focus on the topic that I began with – the value of tobacco as an effective tool for barter in conditions of chaos.
The fact is that approximately 50 million people in the US smoke cigarettes, and many millions more smoke pipes, chew tobacco, etc. So anyone who has tobacco to trade under conditions of chaos is going to find a large number of people ready to make a deal. I’m not suggesting stockpiling cigarettes – they are already far too expensive, they get stale easily, and in many cases they aren’t actually tobacco at all but a synthetic smoking material invented by the industry years ago that people have been deceived into believing is the real thing. No, I’m talking about growing the real thing, Nicotiana Tabacum, and before you object that growing tobacco is a specialized skillset that can only be mastered by farmers in the Southeast, let me assure you that anyone, anywhere, can not only grow their own tobacco but can do so in a very small space – even in an urban apartment with a patio or balcony in a few ten gallon pots. Of course it’s better if you have access to a garden area, but the bottom line is that if you smoke, or if you don’t smoke but want to be self-sufficient when TSHTF, knowing how to grow your own is one of the smartest things you can do.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of tobacco you can grow, and even if you live in a Northern environment with a short growing season, there are varieties like 65 Day Havana that make a great smoke and that will thrive in places with a short growing season like Alaska, the Northern Tier of the US, or Canada. You can even grow excellent tobacco indoors under lights. Not only is real, natural heirloom tobacco easy to grow, it is also easy to cure and to flavor, if you want to create a smoke that has a special taste you’re fond of. Moreover, properly cured tobacco lasts a long time – far longer than a carton of synthetic cigs that go state within months. And I’m not talking about genetically modified freak tobacco either – I am talking about heirloom varieties whose seeds are readily available and that will give you the full potency of real tobacco whether you roll your own or smoke it in a pipe. More flavor, more potency, and so you smoke less and enjoy it more.
So if you are one of the millions of people who already smoke and who realize that as the economy tanks those pre-packaged little tubes are going to take an ever-growing bite out of your resources, and even if you don’t smoke if you understand the value of tobacco in trade as I’ve been discussing here, then maybe you should look into growing this interesting, potent, powerful plant yourself – just for fun, and just in case.
– Bill Drake