Buyers turn over leaf at lower prices Tobacco: In an annual rite, tobacco auctions were held in southern Maryland yesterday. Growers were not entirely happy with the bids.

March 05, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

WAYSONS CORNER -- A rich and colorful scene from Maryland's history was repeated here yesterday when auctioneer Bob Cage stepped up to a waist-high basket of reddish-brown tobacco leaves and asked a dozen buyers trailing him who would bid $3 a pound for the crop.

As they have done for nearly 60 years, tobacco farmers brought their harvest to the giant Triangle Tobacco Warehouse here and to others scattered throughout Southern Maryland and anxiously waited the first hint of what their big payday would bring.

As has been the case in most years, farmers were disappointed at the prices that cigarette companies were willing to pay.

The first basket brought $2.50 a pound, nearly 50 percent higher than last year's average price.

But within seconds the price for the Type 32 leaf grown in Maryland dropped to $1.75 and $1.85 a pound.

"This is disappointing," said Buddy Hance, who grew 68 acres of tobacco near Port Republic. "I hope that the buyers are just trying to feel each other out and that prices are going to rise."

Hance, who also heads the Maryland State Tobacco Authority, the industry's regulatory agency, said he and other growers were hopeful of getting the $1.92 a pound that farmers in surrounding states received at auctions last month.

"I've been growing tobacco all my life," said John A. Prouty, a 75-year-old farmer from Huntingtown. "I can remember when an acre of tobacco would pay for my room, board and tuition at the University of Maryland. And there was money left over for beer."

That was in the mid-1940s. "You couldn't do that today," he said. "Not at these prices."

Though the current auction system dates to 1938, tobacco has been a major crop in Maryland since shortly after settlers arrived on the Ark and the Dove at St. Clement's Island in 1634.

Tobacco was used as currency by the colonists, said Claude G. McKee, the retired head of the University of Maryland's tobacco experimental farm in Upper Marlboro, and the man commonly referred to as "Mr. Tobacco" because of his knowledge of the industry. "The town preacher was paid in tobacco. Farmers would pay 'X' pounds of tobacco for an acre of land or for a plow horse."

Like their forefathers, who probably fussed at how much tobacco they had to trade for eggs and a slab of bacon, most of the farmers at yesterday's sale griped, but reluctantly accepted the buyers' bids for their crop.

"I saw very few folded tickets," David Conrad said of the farmer's symbol of rejecting a buyer's price. Conrad is a University of Maryland extension tobacco specialist.

"I was surprised," he added. "I would have expected more [rejections]. My guess is that the farmer doesn't think they [buyers] are going to pay any more."

Conrad said the lower grades, what he called seconds and dull, were selling for 10 cents to 20 cents a pound more than a year ago. "Everybody was happy with these prices," he said.

The problem was with the higher-quality leaf. "The top grades are off 5 to 10 cents from a year ago," he said. "And nobody seems to know why. Everybody's in a quandary.

"It's a beautiful crop this year. The quality is good. I can only guess that they [the buyers] don't have all their orders in yet."

Traditionally, about half of Maryland tobacco is exported to Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland. It's the export buyers who usually want the top quality leaf and pay the highest price, according to McKee.

During the opening ceremonies before the auction, state agriculture officials noted the importance of tobacco to Southern Maryland's economy.

While the region has changed over the centuries, State Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said that tobacco is still "the backbone" of the region's economy.

Another speaker, Martin P. Wasserman, the secretary of health and mental hygiene, laughed and admitted to being "a little bit out of my element" as he came to the podium.

Two weeks ago, he testified in favor in of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to double the state's cigarette tax to stem smoking, particularly among young people.

Even so, Wasserman wished farmers well, expressing hope that they would receive $3, or even $4, a pound for their crop.

It didn't turn out that way.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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