A bad year for tobacco in Maryland Weather creates 'worst crop since 1983'

Deluge and drought

Poor quality leaf will be penalized at the auction

September 14, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

This will likely be a year when a lot of Southern Maryland tobacco farmers see their profits go up in smoke.

Hit by the double whammy of too much rain in the spring and too little rain in midsummer, leaf growers are facing the prospects of losing 40 percent to 50 percent of their crops.

"This will be our worst crop since 1983," Earl "Buddy" Hance, a Calvert County tobacco grower and head of the Maryland State Tobacco Authority, said last week.

If that weren't bad enough, he said, the industry faces the prospect of its poorest market since 1983.

In 1983, tobacco farms yielded only 1,100 pounds of leaf per acre. That compares with 1,500 pounds per acre in a good year and a normal harvest of 1,350 pounds. The average price that farmers received for their leaf that year was $1.05 a pound, down from $1.52 the year before.

"In addition to our yields being off, the quality of this year's crop is suffering," said Hance.

"Because of the drought, the leaves are thicker, and this is less desirable. It's not going to bring a good price at auction."

The auction for this year's crop will be held in the spring.

At last April's auction, farmers sold 12 million pounds of tobacco at an average price of $1.72 a pound. The sale generated $20.6 million.

Farmers are into the harvest season, and Hance said a lot of "immature, green" leaf is being cut in the fields and will likely bring only 50 cents a pound at auction.

He said some farmers, including himself, are plowing under some of their tobacco because it is not worth the expense of harvesting.

James M. Voss, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency office in Columbia, said a crop survey completed last month predicted that 50 percent of the tobacco harvest in Calvert County will be destroyed by drought that has been particularly hard on Southern Maryland and the Lower Eastern Shore this year.

In Anne Arundel, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties, losses are expected to range between 20 percent and 40 percent.

In a strange twist of fate, Hance explained, tobacco plants suffered from too much rain in April and May as farmers were placing them in the field.

"Because it was so wet, the plants didn't develop deep root," he said.

This came back to haunt the farmers when the rains disappeared in July and August.

"Because of the shallow roots, the plants suffered greatly from the drought," said Hance.

"Normally at this time of the year, a field looks like a solid mat of green. But this year you can see the soil. That's not a good sign."

Instead of being chest-high, Hance said, his plants came up only to his waist. "They didn't fill out enough to conceal the ground," he said.

Gary V. Hodge, executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, told a meeting of the Maryland Agricultural Commission last week that the poor tobacco harvest is going to hit the region's farm economy hard.

He said that while tobacco is grown on only 8,000 acres of the 158,000 farmland acres in the five Southern Maryland counties, it accounts for about two-thirds of the region's farm sales.

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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