Tobacco growers seek a share

They want 15%-25% of settlement by cigarette companies

January 27, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PRINCE FREDERICK -- Southern Maryland tobacco farmers are eyeing a sizable slice of the state's $4.2 billion settlement with cigarette manufacturers to help preserve an industry dating back to shortly after the first settlers arrived on the Ark and the Dove at St. Clement's Island in 1634.

About 500 growers from the state's five tobacco-producing counties packed into the meeting hall at the Calvert County Fairgrounds Monday night and voted overwhelmingly in favor of a plan to have the state compensate them for any financial losses resulting from a decline in leaf sales linked to the settlement.

"The growers want 15 to 25 percent of the settlement," said David L. Conrad, a University of Maryland tobacco extension agent, who presided over the lively session, which ended at bedtime for most farmers.

Such payments would provide farmers a source of supplemental income while maintaining their right to keep raising tobacco.

But it pits farmers against Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who prefers making payments only to growers who make the transition to other crops.

Donald Vandrey, a spokesman for the governor's press office, said yesterday that details of the governor's proposal, including the dollar amount, were not yet available. "The governor will target some money to help farmers transition to other crops, but not necessarily keep them in the tobacco business," Vandrey said.

Bunny Windsor, a 59-year-old farmer who said he has been growing tobacco in Prince George's County since he was 11, said he doesn't expect much help from the governor or the General Assembly.

Holding the microphone in one hand and waving the other in the air, he said: "Nobody up there in Annapolis is fighting for us farmers. All they want to do is raise the tax on cigarettes. They raise it to $5 a pack and how many cigarettes are going to sell?"

"I think we have some legislators who want to help," Conrad interjected.

"I don't think so," Windsor countered.

Davis Cook Jr., a member of a Charles County family that has been growing tobacco since the Civil War, proposed that farmers ask for a quarter of the Maryland's settlement with the tobacco companies. "If you don't ask for a substantial amount of money, they [the legislature] won't pay attention to you," he said.

Perry Bowen offered some sobering advice for any farmer considering switching from tobacco to another crop. "Don't do it," he said.

Bowen said his family grew tobacco on a farm near here from 1650 until 1984.

"We didn't see a bright future in tobacco," he said. "We got out of tobacco in 1984. That was a big mistake."

Today the farm grows vegetables, primarily spinach. "We would be financially better off today if we had stayed in tobacco," he said.

"Don't get out," he advised others at the gathering. "On small pieces of land there is nothing you can grow that produces the same money as tobacco."

State Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts, who was sitting in the back of the room, said he was there as an "interested citizen."

Virts said he was in favor of helping the tobacco industry "because it's the livelihood of Southern Maryland.

"We can't promote tobacco, but we have a situation here where many tobacco farmers are in jeopardy of going out of business," he said. "We need to support them like we would support farmers growing any other crop."

Del. Van T. Mitchell, the Charles County Democrat who chairs the Southern Maryland delegation, said the legislative group will draft legislation based on the farmers' decision to seek compensation and attempt to have the necessary funding added to the governor's supplemental budget.

Mitchell said the governor's crop-transition plan was not feasible. "The average farm in the region is 100 acres," he said. "That's not big enough to grow grain."

On a good year, tobacco growers can gross about $3,000 from each acre of tobacco planted.

Conrad warned farmers that a weakness of the compensation plan is that "it will be a hard sell in Annapolis." He cautioned that tobacco companies might lower the price they pay farmers for their leaf at auction by the compensation amount.

In the early 1980s, tobacco was frequently referred to as the industry in Southern Maryland. It generated more than $58 million in sales.

With the rapid residential and commercial development of the area, tobacco is less important today. Sales totaled $20.6 million last year, but tobacco is still considered the backbone of the region's agriculture economy.

Two-thirds of the total agriculture value in Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties comes off tobacco land, according to Gary V. Hodge, former executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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