Great taste, and high prices Record prices greet this year's first tobacco auction. GOING, GOING . . .

April 04, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

WAYSON'S CORNER -- Pungent tobacco dust fills the vast warehouse. The leaf has the bright gold-brown color and silky feel of a fine crop, and the auctioneer's chant rings with the sweet peal of record prices.

The first tobacco auction of the season is under way here at the Triangle Tobacco Warehouse. Tobacco's bringing $1.85 and $1.90 a pound and Martin Zehner's feeling good about being a farmer.

"I've always considered it a great life," he says. "You make your own decisions and you can rejoice in what you've accomplished."

Farmers are rejoicing this year because $1.90 is the best price they've ever gotten for tobacco.

At the end of yesterday's sale, Bernie Doepkens, the big, friendly man who runs this warehouse, figures the average price for a pound of this crop was $1.85. Last year's top price was $1.80, the average was $1.69 and change.

"The lights are beginning to shine a little," Zehner says. He's a modest, sturdy, conscientious man who raises 10 acres of tobacco over by Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County. His neighbors say he's the best farmer over there. He's 65 years old and he's figures he's been raising tobacco 50 years.

"Tobacco's a crop." he says, "If the price is right, it produces the highest return per acre."

But only five years ago, Maryland tobacco farmers could barely give their crop away. Every time the surgeon general slapped a warning on tobacco products, the market shivered.

"The farmer is a gambler from when he gets up in the morning until he goes to bed at night," Zehner says.

He's standing by a "basket" of tobacco, shredding a leaf between his fingers. These tobacco men almost always have a leaf in their hands, tearing, testing, caressing. They love their crop.

A basket is a stack of "hands," clusters of tobacco leaf that look like . . . hands. A basket can weigh up to 400 pounds, but 200- to 300-pound baskets are most common.

Lots of these farmers mourn the days when tobacco was packed in hogsheads and sold at the old brick warehouse by the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Tobacco then had a steady weight. Today farmers don't even know how much their tobacco weighs until it's sold. A basket can lose weight by evaporation just sitting around in the warehouse.

Baskets are lined up row after row after row, like odd stacks of shredded wood, in this 36,000-square-foot warehouse. The warehouse is lit by dozens of skylights and tobacco dust shimmers in the light like sunstruck early-morning mist.

World champion tobacco auctioneer Bob Cage sells as he moves down one side of a row of baskets, trailing an entourage of assistants as he goes. He has old-time movie star good looks, like Ronald Coleman, say, and his chant rattles out from under his graying mustache like silver dollars from a slot machine.

Buyers bid from other side of the row with a mysterious array of winks, quirks, quivers, quavers and semiquavers. They punch the air like down-home revolutionaries when they're ready to pay the asking price, fan their fingers downward when they want to halve the bid.

And, in an hour and a half, 100 or 150 thousand pounds of tobacco -- the day's allotment -- gets sold off this warehouse floor.

Bob Cage sells the first basket to Louis Goldstein, the state's comptroller.

"The best blame tobacco in the world's right here in this warehouse," the ever ebullient Goldstein burbles. "And ladies and gentlemen, I'll start it off at three dollars a pound."

He buys his basket from Joe Adams, who grows his tobacco on "Ward family" land down in Lower Marlboro, in Goldstein's Calvert County. Adams lives in Owings, also in Calvert County.

The rest of his row of tobacco goes for $1.90 a pound and sets the pace for the day.

"Happy? 'Deed I am," says Adams. Yeah, I'm happy with these numbers. This is the first time in history, first time in my life."

He's 72 and has been growing tobacco in "cooperation" with the Ward family since 1947. He's got the reputation of being a very fine tobacco farmer, too.

"I know the land," he allows.

Roy Wood, another Calvert County farmer, steps forward, leans on his cane and says: "I want to congratulate this man.

"You got the prettiest row of tobacco I ever seen," Wood says. "You can't make it by hand any better than that."

Wood has been farming a while, too.

"My mother, they tell me, chopped tobacco plants all day long and I was born that night," Wood says. "That was 80 years ago and I been in it ever since."

His land is down in Huntingtown and his sons and grandsons work it now.

"All this dollar-ninety tobacco is for export, I'm guessing," says Claude G. McKee, a widely esteemed University of Maryland tobacco expert who's tracking the auction. "I don't think domestics are going to pay that high.

"That's the highest price we've ever had in Maryland," he says. "Apparently they like this crop and need it."

Bernie Doepkens, the warehouse manager, explains that there's worldwide shortage of tobacco.

"This is really the finest tobacco grown," he says. "No place can duplicate the five counties of Southern Maryland."

And the crop size here has dropped from 40 or 50 million pounds just after World War II to 10 or 12 million today.

A Swiss tobacco buyer named Paul Senn took most of Joe Adams' row. Senn's a professional smoker.

"I have to taste the tobacco before I buy it," he says. "This is a good, ripe crop, which is the most important thing."

That means the tobacco reached full maturity before it was cut.

Senn says his company makes a cigarette with a typical Swiss name.

"Parisienne," he says.

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