The Value of Growing Organic Tobacco as a Survival Barter Item

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. He then cross posted this on his site, Check it out.

– Ranger Man


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.

All of this information, and much more, is covered in detail on my website and in my 204 page book, The Cultivators Handbook of Natural Tobacco. But if you choose to order off my website you’ll find a discount code that you can use with your order from my Amazon E-Store that will save you 20% off the $19.95 cover price. And if you want to try before you buy, so to speak, you’ll find generous excerpts from the Handbook on my website, as well as a free condensed guide to growing that will give you all the basic information you need to know to grow your own fine crop of natural heirloom tobacco.

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


BTW: The upcoming solar storm is being described as a potential ‘Global Katrina’, cutting electrical power for MONTHS. Solar storms can have the effect of an EMP, so to get an idea of what that impact could look like, read the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat of the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.

19 comments… add one
  • Spook45 February 22, 2011, 9:36 am

    As a barter item, this could be very lucritive. I dont use it myself, but in its organic form(that is w/o all of the process chemistry) it actually has some medicinal uses and is far less unhealthy. I have known old country folk who lived into theier hundreds and smoked everyday of thier lives. The thing was, they didnt smoke the processed chemical laden crap put out buy R.J. Reynolds or Philip Morris et al. etc. they used home grown that they harvested before they sold off thier crops. And on that note, a word about beef and cattle in general, the same goes for your food supply. I know(now, not in the past) professional farmers that raise beef cattle and pigs and so on. These people will tell you themselves that they keep a cut herd(seperate) from the rest that process and eat themselves. What is the difference? The cut herd gets free ranged and fed whole grain and they are not injected with hormones(FDA) they are not injected with antibiotics(FDA) and they are not injected with tons of unnecessary vaccines(FDA) so that the processed meat does not give you all of that crap everyone else is getting. When a farmer who does it for living tells you this, (that is the guy who grows the food?) you should question what it is you are REALLY buying at the grocer where you shop.

  • Hokie February 22, 2011, 10:46 am

    If SHTF…lol, on occasion I’d probably wanna light up some unfiltered Marlboro Red 100’s and chase it with some fine bourbon! Knowing myself I’d find such guilty pleasures even further lucrative as they’d truly be short-lived experiences. I’m not a habitual smoker, but I sure do like a cigarette or cigar from time to time. It’s awful stuff…but many I’d venture to say many would greatly enjoy a good smoke from time to time.

    Tobacco is a commodity, no doubt – and one I wouldn’t mind bartering for if the situation at hand allowed for such luxuries. Some tobacco in a corner plot might not be such a bad idea. To that end I’m not sure the climate would make it worthwhile. I’d venture to guess there’s a reason most tobacco is grown south of the Mason-Dixon line!

  • carl February 22, 2011, 11:06 am

    Good article and comments so far. I bought a can of plowboy about 7 years ago. it is in my “stuff” cabinate. It cost $9.50 then. I looked at a new can the other day, it was $41.00. Holy smokers Bullwinkle!!!!


    • Ranger Man February 22, 2011, 1:37 pm

      How long does that stuff keep? Just out of curiosity’s sake, I’m tempted to try growing a few tobacco seeds.

      • carl February 22, 2011, 7:20 pm

        I don’t know how long it will last and since I have quit smoking I really have no reason to open the can. It is vacumn sealed and the seal seems to be in good shape. I hope it will last until I need to barter with it…


  • Prepared N.D. February 22, 2011, 1:29 pm

    I don’t smoke, but I chew tobacco. This is something I’d like to try on a small scale this year. My grandfather-in-law grows his own tobacco which has a great flavor but lacks the “kick” the commercial tobacco has. I’ve pretty much transitioned over to the home grown stuff but still have a pinch of Copenhagen or chew of Levi Garrett from time to time.

    • Ranger Man February 22, 2011, 1:45 pm

      “Lacks the ‘kick’ the commercial tobacco has” – sounds better to me (not that I smoke, but everyone has tried it). Check it out, this is the store mentioned in the link I provided in the other comment:

      • Prepared N.D. February 23, 2011, 3:56 am

        That additional kick that I’m talking about is probably the buzz from the 100s of poisons that are added during the manufacturing process. The natural tobacco I have has nicotine, but many of those additives in commercial tobacco are apparently addictive because I still crave commercial products despite the superior flavor of the home grown.

        I wouldn’t go so far as to say the home grown tobacco is healthy, but it’s a significant improvement. I’ve been chewing for 13 years and had leukoplakia et al. During my last dental visit, my dentist asked me how long I had quit chewing. After telling him that I swapped to natural tobacco he recommended that I quit that too (I agree) but noted that it was obvious that it wasn’t nearly as damaging as what I was using since my mouth had healed itself.

  • Hokie February 22, 2011, 2:12 pm

    Re: the natural tobacco….I can attest it smokes different than the commercial stuff. A friend of mine and I toss back a few during a recent happy hour. Taste better too.

  • NoMEPreppy February 22, 2011, 6:26 pm

    If you’re going to plant it in ground, you’d better have one heck of a rotation in place, because it takes alot of nutrients out if the ground. Fertizer us goud, but remember, post-SHTF, agway won’t be open.

    • gat31 February 22, 2011, 7:46 pm

      l have heard of tobacco being used in landscaping so you could always add it to your yard as decoration and just harvest a few leaves at a time, and also you might be able to get a good sized plant from a local nursery.
      Or if you choose to plant it,in a garden situation,to preserve your soil, and to protect during bad weather (freezes) l would think a big planter or even 2 halves of a 55 gal drum to which you can put in new soil (perhaps compost?) each season not to contaminate other soil might also be an option.
      l do agree in a PSHTF situation it could prove to be invaluable for bartering. If anyone has had success with this l would love to hear about it as l’m trying to locate some myself. :)

  • ChefBear58 February 22, 2011, 9:14 pm

    Like Prepared N.D., I chew… Copenhagen, pouches usually (nobody wants to see tobacco in a Chef’s teeth when he smiles!!!) but every now and then I will pick up a pouch of Red Man and reminisce on my days of playing high-school football with a plug in my cheek (and a few “fingers” of bourbon).
    I have kept a few packs of tobacco seeds on hand in my preps for a few years now, but haven’t grown any yet. I have been trying to tell folks for a few years now that when TSHTF and folks can’t get their nicotine fix #1 they will be annoying as hell if they are in your group… and #2 some folks will be willing to trade a lot of things for a few smokes! This could prove to be a HUGE advantage for the preper who acknowledges it and preps accordingly. I know that when things get rough (for whatever reason) the folks with me will probably not want to see me without a chew for a few days! I tend to get pretty mean, or so I have been told. However with my plans to grow my own, and a small supply of snus to get me through until it can be harvested (the real snus from Sweden has a much longer shelf life than any tobacco product from the US) my friends and family shouldn’t have to deal with my nicotine-free attitude.

  • Jason February 22, 2011, 10:20 pm

    I was visiting my sister in NorCal and we were discussing her organic garden which, was huge. I asked her why she did not have any of those pesky cutworms attacking her tomato plants. She showed me how she planted tobacco in with the tomato plants and said the worms went for the tobacco plants instead.

    You learn something new everyday …..

  • wilson February 22, 2011, 10:25 pm

    Homegrown tobacco is quite a bit differant than store bought.
    Not sure if that’s good or bad though.

  • Michelle February 23, 2011, 4:04 pm

    I know that there are some you can make a type of pesticide from tobacco too in addition to other folk remedies. Could be handy when you can’t go down the store to get a pesticide to control the bugs in your garden.

    • ChefBear58 February 24, 2011, 5:15 am

      My grandfather always used a “home brew” insect killer/repellent that has tobacco in it. He showed me how to make it a few years ago, it’s easy and it does work. Here is how his goes
      -1 pouch Red Man, Levi Garrett or similar tobacco, soak in 1 cup of water over night
      1/2 cup dish soap, he always used dawn
      3 tbsp Tabasco
      4 tbsp Epsom salts
      Mix it all together by shaking it until all the Epsom salts is dissolved, put it in a spray bottle and lightly spray the plants in your garden with it. It also works to kill insects which are munchin’ on your plants. The dish soap helps the stuff stick to the plants/bugs, and the tobacco juice will soften the exoskeleton of the insects, which will kill them. It doesn’t kill the bugs as quickly as the hardcore chemicals you can get from the store, but it does work. One problem with it though is that you have to reapply it after a heavy rain.

  • T.R May 23, 2011, 10:03 pm

    Building a still would be great for barter as well ! booze and ‘bacco will be in high demand ;)


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