It should come as no surprise that—like print journalist, video store clerk or disco ball maker—tobacco farmer is an endangered profession in 2016. Anti-smoking campaigns, punishing taxes and an increasingly unfavorable perception of smokers have led to plummeting tobacco sales. So if you’re a farmer who long depended on the crop for your livelihood, what are your options?
You could go the small-batch, organic tobacco route. You could grow tobacco for the next generation of flu vaccines. You could completely pivot, transitioning all your land to delicious, healthful veggies (or weed!) Or you could get in on a potentially lucrative side hustle for tobacco—converting it into jet fuel.
The Guardian just dove into this innovative usage for one of our most denigrated and despised crops, meeting some of the Virginia farmers who’ve been pulling an income from this new phenomenon.
Several research companies and academic institutions have been tinkering with tobacco, upping its sugar and seed oil content to increase its value as a fuel. The first tobacco-fueled passenger flight is projected to happen this year.
It turns out that the crop, which can grow to heights of 15 feet, is a more efficient and powerful fuel source than corn or soy. Tyton Bioenergy, one of the companies working on the tobacco-to-biofuel conversion, writes: “This proprietary energy tobacco can produce up to three times the amount of ethanol per acre as corn and three times the oil per acre as soy.”
According to the CDC, tobacco demand went from 2 billion pounds in the ‘70s to just 800 million pounds in 2012. The number of tobacco farms also plummeted, from 180,000 during the ‘80s to just 10,000 in 2012. Many of the farmers still attempting to earn their living from it are hoping biofuel could be a lifeline in the future.
For the farmers, there are plusses and minuses to converting their tobacco acreage to a fuel source. On one hand, it’s not going to pull in the same high-level income that it would as a smokeable consumer crop. But on the upside, the entire plant is used for biofuel, top to bottom, reducing waste and lowering the cost of harvesting.
Acreage for biofuel tobacco is still limited, but Tyton has pledged $36 million to start an ethanol refinery in North Carolina, according to the Guardian. And one other bonus—much like heirloom tomatoes and heritage breed pigs, they’re reviving vintage strains of tobacco.
“We’re experimenting with varieties that were discarded 50 years ago by traditional tobacco growers because the flavours were poor or the plants didn’t have enough nicotine,” said Tyton co-founder Peter Majeranowski.