By Amaris Castillo
The process begins with seeds – microscopic in size. Audrey Silk, a retired police officer, plants the tobacco seeds in trays inside her Brooklyn home. “If you want a good tasting leaf in the end, it needs to be done properly,” she says.
Growing tobacco to make cigarettes was something Audrey Silk did for herself. Only a few people knew. “I didn’t advocate it or publicize it,” she says. She planted her first crop in 2009. Silk says it’s really not much to take care of the plants.
“Just water them,” she says. “Watch them.”
Within six weeks, the tobacco plants are about two inches high and ready to leave Silk’s home. They’re planted in buckets in her backyard. Once the leaves turn yellow, Silk picks them and washes them in her kitchen sink. They’re then hung to dry in her dog Bingo’s bathtub – downstairs.
Creaky wooden stairs lead to Silk’s basement, a dim room where she hangs the tobacco leaves after they’ve dripped dried. The leaves hang on wire lines that run across the basement ceiling.
“What you do is you string it like popcorn on Christmas, for a Christmas tree,” Silk says.
After the leaves have been dried and stored in a dark place, Silk says she needs to return them to a pliable state. You don’t crumple a leaf. “It’s like ‘Ok, once a leaf is dry, you make a cigarette’,” she says. “No – it won’t work that way.” A cigarette will not stay lit with just crumpled leaves.
She removes the main vein from each tobacco leaf and stacks them into a brick mold. The leaves are compressed into a brick shape and cut into quarters for shredding. That way, she adds, the cigarette will have a constant burn.
Earlier this spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a ban on smoking in city parks, beaches, public plazas and boardwalks. That was the piece of legislation that pushed Silk to go public about her tobacco growing. No law prohibits New Yorkers from growing tobacco for personal consumption.
“It’s so much work I don’t have any intent on selling it,” she says. “I need it for my own.”
Silk believes that the increased taxation on cigarettes in recent years is being used as a coercive method to try to get smokers to change their behavior.
“We’re not saying people should smoke, we’re just defending the rights of people who’ve already chosen to smoke,” she says. “We don’t encourage people to smoke, we don’t encourage them to quit.”
Silk doesn’t deny there’s a risk for smoking. “I think it’s been exaggerated but there is definitely a risk,” she says. She just wants people to make their own decisions.