Amite County farmer tries growing his own chew

Jewel Watts checks out tobacco leaves.

LIBERTY — So what do you do if your chewing tobacco costs so much that your wife is starting to complain?

If you’re Jewel Watts, you grow your own.

Jewel and his wife Crystal are truck farmers who received the Farm Family of the Year Award in March from the Liberty Area Chamber of Commerce. They grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, which they sell at local farmers markets.

Jewel chews a pack of Red Man a day. He buys it by the carton, but at around $8 per pack, Crystal was starting to complain.

Jewel said he read an article in the Enterprise-Journal about growing tobacco for home use and decided to try it. It’s been a long process, but his experiment is showing some results so far.

“I’m proud of it, that’s for sure,” Watts said Wednesday when inspecting his plants, some of them flowering, on his Bates School Road farm.

Historically, tobacco was one of Mississippi’s first cash crops, along with indigo. But that was in the 1700s, and cotton soon supplanted tobacco, which did better in other states anyway.

South Louisiana produces its own strain of tobacco — the highly prized perique — which grows only in St. James Parish.

Crystal used to work in the perique tobacco sheds and has filled Jewel in on a lot of technical details on how it’s processed.

Jewel also consulted with Tim and Wanda Higginbotham of Bogue Chitto, who used to work with tobacco in her native Kentucky.

One thing he’s learned is that successfully growing tobacco can be extremely complicated.

“I can see why tobacco is so high, because it’s going to be a long process,” Jewel said.

“It’s going to be six months to a year drying it, processing it and getting it to where I can chew.”

He started with seed, and discovered that the young sprouts sit without growing for a long time. Then they get a growth spurt and take off. Now he has plants four to six feet tall with leaves two feet long and 16 inches wide.

The plants have been plagued with cabbage worms and aphids, but Jewel applies pesticides — very carefully since he plans to chew the leaves eventually.

As for converting the dried leaves to chewing tobacco, he plans to experiment with various recipes, with ingredients ranging from concentrated cherry juice to molasses. He even plans to flavor some tobacco with cherry wood smoke.

It’s been a steep learning curve, and Jewel is going a step at a time. But he’s hopeful he’ll wind up with a good-tasting — and less expensive —  chew. If he does, he already knows where he’ll put it.

“I’m saving all my old Red Man packs,” he said.

And if his home-grown is not as good as he hopes, he may just mix it with store-bought and still save money.

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