Non-profit board created to promote state crop


August 11, 1991|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Correspondent

Hughesville -- On a blistering 100-degree day in August, Steve Walter stands on the back of a wagon, loading sticks of freshly cut tobacco. Strip away some of the newfangled machines -- the tractor and gas-powered cutter -- and it's a harvesting scene that's been repeated in his family for more generations than he can remember.

Although his ancestors depended on tobacco for their livelihood, the Walter family now devotes just 60 of the 1,300 that they farm to the crop. Even at that, those 60 acres put the Walters among Maryland's largest tobacco growers.

And it's those 60 acres -- along with the tobacco plots of most other Southern Maryland farmers -- that he's fighting for.

Mr. Walter is president of the newly formed Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, a non-profit business group charged with promoting the sale of the Type 32 leaf grown in Southern Maryland. That position has put him on a collision course with the anti-smoking movement.

It may seem strange, but the 30-year-old tobacco grower doesn't smoke. "Just never had the desire to," he says, looking down from a John Deere tractor towing a load of freshly harvested plants. "Been around it so long, I guess, I just got tired of it."

But he's a loyal advocate of a crop that has been around for more than 350 years -- and until the past decade was still the industry in Southern Maryland. He views tobacco much the same way he does the soybeans, corn, wheat and watermelons grown the Walter farm: a cash crop that provides money for a great many American families.

He's also a strong defender of those who do smoke. "Non-smokers have rights," he says as he hangs sticks of tobacco in the barn for the curing process, "but so do smokers. [People opposed to smoking] hide behind their civil liberties."

His role as the state's chief tobacco advocate pits him against health organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which issued a report last month that said cigarette smoke causes cancer and possibly heart disease in non-smokers.

"We do a lot of things that can affect our health," Mr. Walter said. "I think it is up to the individual. If they enjoy smoking, let them enjoy it. That's it in a nutshell."

Although the anti-smoking movement is big in the United States, it is not nearly as strong overseas. "There's some rumbling," he said, "but it is nothing like it is here."

That could be an important factor in the future of the state crop. Historically, a large percentage of Maryland's leaf, which is used as a blend with other tobaccos to make cigarettes, is shipped abroad. This year, Mr. Walter estimates that foreign companies bought 95 percent of the state crop at April's auction.

Keeping these overseas customers, as well as the domestic buyers, happy is a big part Mr. Walter's non-paying, part-time job.

The tobacco board is funded by a half-cent fee charged on each pound of tobacco sold at auction. The fee raised about $45,000 this year.

To keep in touch with its present customers and to make new contacts, board members traveled last fall to a worldwide trade show in Vienna, Austria. Another trip is planned this year to Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, countries

that have been big customers in the past.

Board members have called on domestic buyers, including R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and the American Tobacco Co. The board also has prepared a videotape tracing the production of Maryland tobacco from planting of seeds to the auction.

Tobacco has been around for a long, long time, Mr. Walter said. "There probably wouldn't have been a Maryland if it were not for tobacco. It was the mainstay of the economy."

Looking ahead, he added: "I can't say it will be here for centuries and centuries, but it's going to be around for quite a while yet."

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