Tobacco farmers turn over new leaf Alternatives: Southern Maryland farmers are trying new ventures and crops as tobacco, the region's agricultural backbone, faces attacks and a bleak future.

July 31, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

HUGHESVILLE -- For 365 years, Southern Maryland farmers have made a living -- a good living -- growing tobacco.

But with smoking under continued attack and the outlook for tobacco bleak, leaf growers are looking at alternatives to a crop that as recently as the early 1980s was referred to as "the economy" of the region.

Strawberries, sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupes, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, honey, organic poultry and emu are among the farming ventures being tried, said Gary V. Hodge, executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland.

"State lawmakers in Annapolis make it sound so easy when they stand up and say, 'Tobacco farmers should switch to something else,' " Steven H. Walter said recently as he inspected a 10-acre field of waist-high tobacco plants at his farm a few miles outside this rural Charles County community.

"It's easier said than done," said the tanned, 37-year-old farmer, whose family has been growing tobacco for nearly 80 years.

"Yeah, you can plant anything you want. You can plant acres and acres of tomatoes or cantaloupes, but what do you do with them? You have to have a market for them."

He said the same is true for most vegetables. "There's already enough vegetables to meet demand. You don't see empty shelves in the produce section of the market," Walter said.

Walter said he grows sweet corn and sells it at farmers' markets, but corn produces about half of the $2,000 to $3,000 per acre in revenue that tobacco produces.

Twenty miles away in Port Republic, Earl "Buddy" Hance has tried strawberries as an alternative to the tobacco he says his family has been "growing forever."

"It's a nice sideline," Hance said of the farm's pick-your-own operation, "but strawberries can never take the place of tobacco. The market is not big enough. There is not enough expansion potential."

He noted the case of neighboring tobacco farmers who began growing chrysanthemums. "A few people started doing it, and they made some money, but then everybody go into mums and the market couldn't handle that many growers," he said.

Hance said housing developments are about the only thing that can take the place of tobacco in providing farmers with adequate income.

That results from development pressure, said Hodge, head of the Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties planning and economic development organization.

"This is one of the fastest-growing sections of the mid-Atlantic area," said Hodge, noting that the population has been growing about 5,000 a year.

Hodge acknowledged that tobacco has a much less significant impact today than it did in the early 1980s, when the crop generated more than $58 million in sales, but it is still the backbone of the region's agriculture.

About 1,200 farmers in the tri-county region, plus Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, grow tobacco on 8,500 acres. Last year's crop, sold at auction this spring, totaled 12 million pounds and brought $20.6 million.

By comparison, Hodge said, the value of everything produced on the 158,000 acres of agricultural land in Southern Maryland was $31 million.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to draw the right conclusion," Hodge said. "Two-thirds of the agriculture value comes off tobacco land. That's the heart of the agriculture industry in the region. It's what sustains the 158,000 acres of farmland."

The Tri-County Council uses $100,000 of the approximately $140 million a year in state cigarette tax revenues to help farmers, not just tobacco growers, investigate alternative crops and livestock ventures to supplement their income.

The funds are used to provide grants to farmers, less than $2,000 each, as seed money to help finance the experiments.

The council has sponsored 55 programs, Hodge said, none of which has proved as profitable as tobacco. "We have not found the magic bullet. We have not recommended that any farmer completely commit to any of these alternatives," he said.

Hodge said the typical tobacco farm is 10 acres. It is difficult to raise anything on that small a parcel that generates the financial return of tobacco, he said.

He pointed to a 1994 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture comparing tobacco revenues in North Carolina with those of 11 other field crops.

Tobacco generated net income of $2,205 per acre. Cabbage, sold fresh at market, was a distant second at $883 an acre. Tomatoes came in at $596 per acre; sweet potatoes, $509; snap beans, $383; watermelons, $190; and corn, $120. Those proportions also apply in Maryland, Hodge said.

"It's going to be hard to replace tobacco in Southern Maryland," he said.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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