Farmers find tobacco difficult to weed out Suitable substitute for lucrative crop not readily available

December 06, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

CLEMENTS -- In the dim warmth of the stripping shed, Betty and Walter Russell work side by side, stacking piles of papery tobacco leaves as neatly and gently as if they were dollar bills.

The care they take is second nature, as much a part of tobacco farming as nursing the seedlings in the spring and hanging the cut plants to dry in the fall. The Russells grow tobacco on only 19 of the 170 acres they farm in St. Mary's County, yet they depend on it more than on any other crop.

"Tobacco pays our bills," says Betty Russell, 45, peeling the red-brown leaves from the stalks. "It's our occupation. It's our livelihood. What would we do instead?"

That's a common question among Southern Maryland's dwindling ranks of tobacco growers, who find themselves worrying more about the consequences of a national lawsuit settlement than about the price their crop will fetch during the next few months.

Many are bracing for depressed sales because of the higher cigarette prices being charged by the country's major manufacturers to cover the $206 billion deal. Equally alarming to them is a crusade by anti-smoking activists, backed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, to raise Maryland's 36-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.50.

Nor have the tobacco farmers been pleased by the state's offers of assistance. Maryland legislators have agreed to spend part of the state's $4.2 billion share of the settlement to help them.

What the state wants is for them to switch to other crops.

"If there was anything better, you better believe we'd be doing it," says Buddy Hance, a Calvert County grower and the tobacco representative on the Maryland Agriculture Commission.

Legal and lucrative

Hance says that for all the social stigma of smoking and threats of greater government regulation, the product he grows is legal -- and lucrative. He has experimented with strawberries in recent years, only to find that a bumper harvest does not come close to generating the same income as a few acres of tobacco.

Besides, he and fellow growers argue, the state should recognize that it has a vested interest in tobacco. Maryland produces 12 million pounds of tobacco annually, worth about $20 million, less than 1 percent of the crop produced nationally but important to the state's economy. Tobacco remains the agricultural backbone of Southern Maryland, and the state collects about $130 million in cigarette taxes each year.

"Our agricultural base here in the region is highly dependent on tobacco income," says Gary V. Hodge, executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland. "Identifying a commodity which is as profitable as tobacco is going to be

extremely difficult."

During the past five years, using $100,000 in annual state revenue from the cigarette tax, the council has helped farmers try alternative crops.

Fifty farmers, most of them growing tobacco in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties, have received start-up grants of usually less than $1,000 each to experiment with alfalfa, garlic, fruit trees, watermelons and sunflowers. The results have been mixed, but none of the farmers has found the new enterprises profitable enough to give up tobacco.

"We haven't gotten rich off this," says Frances Beale, who is cultivating shitake mushrooms with her husband, Joe. The Beales believe in farm diversification on their 100 acres in St. Mary's County, but they count on their 5 acres of tobacco.

Tobacco prices have been kept stable for decades by a national quota system. Maryland farmers don't participate in the program, which sets limits on tobacco production, but they benefit from it. Maryland tobacco growers have created a niche for themselves, selling more than half their product to foreign buyers.

Although the state's production has been steady since the early 1990s, it is a fraction of what it used to be. Housing tracts and strip malls have taken large stretches of farmland in Southern Maryland. The state's tobacco acreage declined from 350,000 after World War II to 27,000 acres by 1982. After a severe drought the following year, more tobacco fields disappeared.

About 8,000 tobacco acres remain unclaimed by suburban sprawl, and as tobacco representative Hance notes, the growers are mostly in their 50s or older. "The state should just wait," he says. "Nobody young is getting into it in this climate."

Reluctant to quit

Fewer than 1,000 Maryland farmers grow tobacco as their main crop. Many hedge their bets with grain and produce, or work other jobs. But if they have only a few acres of tobacco, they're reluctant to give it up.

"I still have my tobacco knife. Sometimes, I think about planting an acre, showing my kids how my father got me going," says James Schillinger, 39, the brother of Betty Russell and owner of a farmers' market in Anne Arundel County.

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