Md. tobacco farmers look for payoff Annual auction attracts a crowd

April 04, 1991|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Correspondent

WAYSON'S CORNER -- More than 150 Southern Maryland tobacco growers converged on this crossroads community yesterday morning looking for positive signs that an industry which dates back to Colonial times is going to be around for years to come.

It was not a young crowd. Several walked with canes as they made their way along the long rows of tobacco baskets piled 3-feet high with the golden brown leaf that attracts buyers from around the world.

Joseph Adams was like of many of those gathered at Triangle Tobacco Warehouse in southern Anne Arundel County for the opening session of the annual tobacco auction.

Mr. Adams, 72, said he's been growing tobacco for more years than he can remember. "Things have been a lot better," he said.

Mr. Adams was referring to the more favorable times in the early 1980's when tobacco was considered "the industry" in this part of the state and contributed more than $58 million to the area economy.

This year's auction may bring only a fourth of that amount. The price farmers receive is not expected to be a lot higher this year then it was 10 years ago, when the cost of living was considerably lower.

Anxious farmers gathered around a row of tobacco as State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein praised their crop. Growers laughed when Mr. Goldstein said the tobacco about to be sold was "low in nicotine" and would "not irritate the mucous membrane. Ladies and gentlemen, it ought to start out at $3 a pound," he said, knowing that the top price last year was only $1.80.

When the selling started, auctioneer Bob Cage chanted: "Will you give me two fifty; two seventy-five; three. Sold to Louis L. Goldstein for $3."

As everyone expected, the price dropped dramatically when selling actually started. The first batch fetched $1.90 a pound. That figure was music to the ears of Mr. Adams,who owned much of the leaf in the first row.

"Yes, indeed," he said, with a wide smile. "It's a good price. I'm proud of it. The money is coming in now that I'm getting too old to fool with it," he said, referring to the laborious task of preparing tobacco for market.

The price held for baskets of top-quality leaf at the opening session and gave growers the encouragement they needed to plant a new crop for next year.

Last year, the top price was $1.80 and the average price was $1.70. While the average price has been increasing in recent years, it is still below the $1.74 farmers received for the crop at the 1983 auction. The average price at yesterday's sale will not be available until later today.

Other industry statistics paint a rather gloomy picture of a crop that was the mainstay of Maryland's economy for more than 200 years. Acreage planted, pounds sold and total crop value are but a fraction of what they were eight years ago.

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