UPPER MARLBORO -- It was payday yesterday for the workers in perhaps the state's oldest industry as Southern Maryland tobacco growers took their crop to auction.
"This is one of the prettiest crops I've seen in a long, long time," state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein told buyers minutes before the opening of the 15-day auction, reminding them that he remembered when cigarettes sold for 15 cents a pack. "This crop should fetch $3 a pound."
No such luck.
Tobacco is under attack from a variety of fronts, and the anti-smoking movement is beginning to have an impact on the worldwide demand for tobacco.
Despite this, farmers' hopes were high when veteran auctioneer Bob Cage sold the first 350-pound basket of reddish-brown Maryland type-32 leaf for $2 a pound.
The price held over the next 15 baskets at the sprawling Planter's Warehouse, where hundreds of farmers and industry officials, bundled up against a morning chill, gathered to get a reading on this year's market for Southern Maryland's primary agricultural commodity.
The growers' hopes diminished a few minutes later when prices for top grades leveled off at $1.80 to $1.90 a pound.
Olivia Wade, who grows 20 acres of tobacco in Oakley, was not at all happy when buyers bid $1.75 a pound for one of her baskets of lesser-quality leaves from the top of tobacco plants known as dulls.
"They [the tobacco companies] indicated over the winter they wanted the lower grades of tobacco for their high nicotine content and would pay a good price," she said. "They said they'd pay $2.06, but they're paying $1.65 and $1.75." She folded the ticket on the 3-foot high basket of leaf, the symbol of rejecting the buyer's price.
"This is the first day, and it is going to take some time for prices to fall into place," said Earl "Buddy" Hance, a Calvert County tobacco grower and head of the Maryland State Tobacco Authority, the industry's regulatory agency.
Hance said he expected the average price this year to be about 10 cents lower than last year's average price of $1.92 a pound.
"There is not as much demand for our tobacco this year," he said. "Last year there was a worldwide shortage of air-cured tobacco, and this increased the price."
He said prices were off 6 cents to 7 cents a pound at the recently completed burley tobacco auctions in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee.
"We tend to follow the price trend there," Hance said.
Amish tobacco growers from Lancaster County, Pa., who attended yesterday's auction would have jumped at the prices offered Maryland growers.
After the collapse of the auction there a few weeks ago, they were hopeful of selling their leaf in Maryland.
"We don't know if we would be welcome or not," said Jonas
Miller of Oxford, Pa.
"We don't want to get in anybody's way. We're just looking at the chance of selling our tobacco here at the end of the market," Miller said.
Miller said prices in Pennsylvania were as low as 60 cents to $1 for leaf that normally would bring $1.75 to $1.90 a pound.
Hance expressed his sympathy to the Amish farmers, but offered little encouragement.
He told them that Maryland tries to keep its tobacco separate from types grown in other states because the buyers like it that way.
"We're all trying to make a living," said Hance, who did agree to talk with buyers about holding a sale for the Pennsylvania leaf at the conclusion of the Maryland auction.
"So far," Hance added, "the buyers are not interested."
Pub Date: 3/18/98