Crop's role in Md. firm but fading

May 29, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

UPPER MARLBORO -- Not too long ago, Maryland's "Mr. Tobacco" worked out of the Tobacco Experimental Farm, a 200-acre bastion of tobacco research surrounded by bountiful farmland. Now, Dr. Claude McKee's farm is devoted primarily to other crops and under siege by land-hungry subdivisions.

The farm's switch from rural tobacco center to suburban crop research facility mirrors the fortunes of Maryland tobacco. Dr. McKee, a research scientist with the University of Maryland who has grown and studied tobacco for four decades, has seen the state's tobacco farmers dwindle in number as its farmland has disappeared and demand for its unique brand of tobacco has declined.

Last year, Maryland tobacco farmers produced 12 million pounds of tobacco, down from 38 million in 1982 and about 50 million in the 1700s, when tobacco accounted for 75 percent of all commodities shipped from the Chesapeake colonies.

"Many farmers are living on depreciation of barns and equipment. They're not paying much income tax. They make a living but not a fat living," Dr. McKee said.

Indeed, tobacco grower Martin Zehner says the fat days for tobacco in Maryland are long over. Back in the 1970s, he could earn $3,000 for each acre of tobacco planted.

With about 10 acres, tobacco was his farm's cornerstone.

Now, the 68-year-old resident of Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County clears about $2,000 an acre. "We're not improving or keeping up with inflation," Mr. Zehner said.

Maryland tobacco farmers grow a unique leaf that is low in nicotine -- thanks to the curing process -- and is often used to help blended tobacco burn more easily. Premium cigarettes like Camel or Marlboro use about 1 percent or 2 percent Maryland tobacco.

The state still exports to Switzerland and the Low Countries, where some brands use 100 percent Maryland tobacco or a high percentage of the state's leaf. But these brands -- which are named "Maryland" and "MS" -- have declined in popularity as U.S. tobacco companies have convinced smokers that American blends are more chic and modern.

But the biggest threat to the state's tobacco industry is land development, which is gradually turning the southern tobacco counties into Washington suburbs. Between 1950 and 1987, for example, Southern Maryland lost 60 percent of its agricultural land, and Dr. McKee's research farm is surrounded by cookie-cutter subdivisions and a dump.

Unlike many states, where tobacco is still a significant commodity, Maryland's tobacco is now basically a niche product. Farmers are estimated to earn $20 million from tobacco; by contrast, nearby Andrews Air Force Base has an annual payroll of $1 billion.

Still, the crop's rich history -- after all, the counties bordering the Chesapeake were once nicknamed "Tobacco Coast" -- and the farmers' love of the crop, make it unlikely that it will disappear soon.

"Every year someone says that Maryland tobacco is going up in smoke, but every year they're wrong," said Gary Hodge, an adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board. "Maryland tobacco is a niche product with loyal customers."

Echoes Mr. Zehner: "Even if it didn't bring in much, I'd still grow an acre or so. Just for the memories."

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