Tobacco growers facing loss seek 5% of award

Victims of drive against cigarettes demand compensation


April 02, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO -- Facing their first deficit in memory, Southern Maryland tobacco growers renewed their plea yesterday for financial assistance from the state.

Farmers say higher cigarette taxes and other government efforts to curtail smoking have caused the sharp drop in the price domestic tobacco companies are willing to pay this year.

"We grow a legal crop and I don't feel that we should be punished for doing it," Steven H. Walter, a 37-year-old tobacco farmer from Hughesville, said as he leaned on a basket of Maryland Type 32 leaf on the floor at Planter's Tobacco Warehouse here.

Walter, president of the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, a private group, joined with others at a news conference to press lawmakers to allocate 5 percent of Maryland's $4.2 billion share of a 46-state tobacco settlement to offset losses of local growers.

Grades that brought $1.40 to $1.60 a pound at auction last year were bringing bids of 50 cents and 60 cents a pound this year. Some bids were as low as 35 cents, said John Buchheister, manager of Planter's Warehouse.

Only about a third of the 150,000 pounds of leaf slated for auction at the warehouse yesterday was bought by tobacco companies, he said.

Bids by domestic companies were so low that farmers rejected them, while no bids were offered on some batches of tobacco.

Even so, foreign companies, who normally buy a third to half of the Maryland crop each year, are paying $1.80 to $2 a pound for better quality leaf.

Earl "Buddy" Hance, another farmer at the news conference, was worried that a decline in the number of tobacco growers would threaten the infrastructure needed to support the industry and could eventually lead to the loss of the state's tobacco market.

He said most tobacco growers will lose money this year because of dwindling demand for their leaf by domestic tobacco companies.

"On many farms there is going to be no profit this year," Hance said.

"A good many of them will go out of business."

There are about 1,200 tobacco growers in Anne Arundel, St. Mary's, Calvert, Charles and Prince George's counties.

Although tobacco is grown on only 5 percent of the cropland in those counties, it accounts for two-thirds of the total value of all farm commodities in the region.

"Our main goal is to get something out of Annapolis this year to help us," Walter said.

"We have never asked for anything before -- not in 360 years -- and all we are asking for now is our fair part of the state settlement," said Walter.

Virginia awarded 50 percent of its $4 billion tobacco settlement to tobacco farmers.

Because Virginia has more growers than Maryland, the dollar amount per farmer would be the same in both states if the state's tobacco men get 5% of the settlement.

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening is opposed to bills awarding growers 5 percent, although he is committed to setting aside a portion of it to help tobacco farmers switch to other crops, said Ray Feldman, his spokesman.

But, he said, the governor does not intend to subsidize farmers for any losses so that they can continue growing tobacco.

"He wants to work with the legislature and the farming community to do something that is fair and responsible," Feldman said.

Walter, the tobacco farmer, noted that: "Up until a few years ago, the state even encouraged us to grow tobacco."

He referred to trade missions sponsored by the state Department of Agriculture and the office of economic development to sell tobacco in Europe. "Now somebody has gotten religion and the state doesn't want us to grow it any more," he said.

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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