Tobacco auction opens hopefully

Drought damage: Maryland tobacco farmers glimpse what they will be receiving for the drought-damaged crop harvested in the fall

March 22, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO -- Southern Maryland tobacco farmers got a hint yesterday of what their checking accounts are going to look like this year.

Hundreds of growers -- bundled in layers of flannel shirts and sweaters to ward off a damp morning chill -- showed up at the opening session of the annual leaf auction at Planter's Warehouse Inc. to get a feel for how much they will earn from another drought-damaged crop, this the one harvested in the fall.

Nobody was celebrating, but there was less grumbling about prices this year than last.

The reaction of 69-year-old Mary Ellen Moreland was typical of most of the other growers at Planter's warehouse. As she leaned on a 284-pound basket of reddish brown leaf that reached to her chest, she said: "This was my best tobacco. It sold for $1.80 a pound. I was hoping for $1.90, but I'm not going to fold my ticket," referring to what farmers do when rejecting the price offered.

"All of our costs went up this year, especially gasoline and diesel fuel," she said. "That's why I was hoping to get a little more."

Moreland grew 11 acres of Maryland Type 32 leaf at her farm near Lothian. The crop supplements her Social Security and income from a part-time job at the Waysons Corner bingo hall.

Noting that tobacco prices in Maryland have fallen 15 percent over the past three years, Moreland added, "There's not as much money in tobacco as there used to be. I guess I'll keep my job at the bingo hall."

Joseph Aisquith, a 77-year-old tobacco grower from Edgewater, pointed out an ominous sign at yesterday's opening session that may bode poorly for farmers in the weeks ahead.

He picked up a hand of lower-grade dark tobacco from a basket. "These are tips," he said. "They come from the top of the plant, and you can see by the color they were hurt by the drought last summer."

What concerned Aisquith and the other growers was that none of the buyers -- domestic or foreign -- bid on the five baskets of tips.

"There's no price, no bid," Aisquith said of the baskets that would likely have brought 75 cents or 80 cents a pound last year. He worried that there will be no market for the lower grades of drought-damaged tobacco, pointing out that it would cut into farmers' overall income.

Picking up on a more encouraging sign, Earl "Buddy" Hance, a Calvert County tobacco grower and chairman of the Maryland State Tobacco Authority, an industry group that regulates the local market, noted that everybody was buying at yesterday's sale.

"Philip Morris is buying, and export sales are strong," Hance said. `The first day last year, only the exports were buying. It's good when you have more competition."

Noticeably absent from yesterday's sale was R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Hance said Reynolds is substituting tobacco it normally would buy here with cheaper imports from Brazil and Zimbabwe.

Reynolds bought about 400,000 pounds of Maryland leaf last year. "They can import it for $1.30 a pound," Hance said. "That's cheaper than paying us."

Maryland Type 32 tobacco is part of a blend that makes up cigarettes. It makes up about 2 percent of the blend and is added primarily to make cigarettes burn evenly.

Foreign tobacco companies buy about one-third of the state crop each year.

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