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Express Newspaper Article
The Express is a well respected daily newpaper in the UK. On Saturday 12th February 2000, The Express carried a 2 page picture feature about Chris Gurney and his tobacco seeds. The full article is reproduced below.
'IF YOU CAN'T KICK THE HABIT, THEN GROW IT' says Catherine Barnes
If Chris Gurney has a vice, it is an overwhelming weakness for a cup of tea and a cigarette. His 40-a-day habit may not be doing much for his health, but at least the fags aren't burning a hole in his pocket - his smokes are homegrown and cost little more than the price of a single cigarette paper.
The 58-year-old "semi-retired" upholsterer from Selsdon, Surrey began growing tobacco on his allotment three years ago and is convinced that if Britain's smokers followed suit, they would not only save a fortune, but hundreds of overgrown allotments from the developers' clutches too.
"If this can get people out on to the allotments, they will then have an attempt at tomatoes and potatoes and things will go on from there," says Chris.
"Everyone comes and helps you on an allotment. It's a wonderful bug. For me, the tobacco's a bonus," adds Chris, who has become a self-styled crusader for Britain's smokers. For the price of a packet of cigs, they can buy a sachet of seed and grow enough tobacco for life in one season - and the practice is entirely legal.
"During the war, there were even curing houses for homegrown tobacco around the country, but you could only grow 2lb per person annually. These days, you can grow as much of it as you want," he says. According to Chris, who formed his habit at 14, a standard sized allotment can accommodate 500 plants - enough to yield up to 54kg of the evil weed, which would cost £8,000 in the shops. "I would never advocate smoking," he says, "but a vast number of people do. It would be wonderful if I didn't, but at least I can save money by growing my own."
You may well ask why anyone would wish to grow £8,000 worth of tobacco for their own consumption - it's illegal to sell or give the stuff away. "There's no way I'd take advantage of the system and anyone who did would be stupid to try," says Chris. "The tobacco keeps for years once it is cured and actually gets mellower with age, so you might as well do a lot at once".
He spends around two hours a week tending 1,000 plants and after harvesting his last crop in August and curing the leaves in his greenhouse, Chris bought a small plot of private land to raise plants for seed. One plant alone can yield almost a million seeds and Chris is fully aware that people are likely to save their seed and pass it on to friends. "I never meant it to be a money-making operation, it's a pleasurable hobby," he says. His next plan is to establish a curing house open to the public.
Thanks to global warming, Britain's climate is just right for growing the plant, which requires warm temperatures to germinate seeds sown between now and March and lots of water during the growing season between May and August. In fact, tobacco was grown as a commercial crop in Britain until the mid 17th century, when Charles II banned it in the economic interests of the American colonies.
Tobacco, or Nictotiana tobacum, is a member of the potato family. The plant looks like a giant version of its harmless relative Nicotiniana sylvestris, with big pink trumpet shaped flowers, but only a slight perfume. It will thrive in sandy soil, which it prefers to a heavy clay. "Virginia grows well, while Havana grows even better," says Chris, who admits that he'd "probably illegally cuff them around the head" if he caught any of his 12 grandchildren smoking.
The younger family members, aged between six and 12, love to help their granddad on his allotment, pricking out seeds and helping to sow the tomatoes, herbs and potatoes he also grows. The produce ends up on a barbecue, which Chris has managed to squeeze on to the land, along with enough garden furniture for everyone to dine al fresco.
Although he gave up three of his plots when he bought his own land to grow the tobacco for seed, Chris still tends two plots, which have a 40-year-old apple and pear orchard, gooseberry bushes and five "massive" 30-year-old grape vines, which alone yield enough fruit for up to 10 gallons of wine a year.
He adapted a wheelchair lift to make a wine press which squeezes the juice straight into the barrel and was thrilled when he saw a similar machine advertised by a winemaker's shop with a £12,000 price tag.
Together with the cider he makes and gooseberry, apple and pear wine, it only seemed sensible to convert his potting shed into a miniature vintners. "I hardly ever drink, though," he explains. "I got drunk at 15 and that put me off for life. I'll have a social drink when I play canasta on a Friday evening."
Chris hopes that even if it's the prospect of cheap smokes that attracts them, more people will take an interest and breathe new life into Britain's allotments before they are lost to developers. But he is more than a little anxious that people may think he dabbles in alternative smoking products. "Nine out of 10 people suggest I'm growing something I shouldn't," he sighs. "It's bad enough that I'm smoking but I won't break the law for anything."
For further details, write to: The Plantation House, 96 Old Farleigh Road, Selsdon, Surrey CR2 8QE, or visit www.smoke4free.com. Home grown tobacco is not subject to tax, but it is illegal to sell it, or give it away. The same applies to home made alcoholic drinks.
The above article was also features in the INTERNATIONAL EXPRESS on Tuesday 15th February 2000
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