Future falls on the leaf

Tobacco farmers fear the end of family livelihood

`We are getting close'

Anti-smoking laws, declining demand, imports hurt outlook

March 26, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO -- Like his father and his father's father, Leroy Russell is a tobacco farmer.

Russell can trace his family's involvement with tobacco to a farm near Clements in 1650, shortly after the first European settlers arrived at St. Clements Island, aboard the Ark and the Dove.

His ancestors rolled hogsheads of tobacco down to St. Clements bay, where ships waited to carry the valuable crop back to Europe.

Tobacco was the backbone of Maryland's early economy. It was used as currency by the settlers. The town preacher was paid in tobacco. Tobacco farmers could order a bride from England for 120 pounds of dried leaf.

But now Russell fears that he might be the last generation in a long legacy. Feeling the pressure of anti-smoking laws, giant lawsuits against the big domestic tobacco companies, a decline in smoking in this country and cheap tobacco from abroad, Maryland's tobacco industry has been in a steep decline since the early 1980s.

"If things don't change, I don't think we're going to have a tobacco industry much longer," said Russell, 43, who began growing tobacco in St. Mary's County after graduating from Chopticon High School in 1974.

"I'm afraid that we are getting close to the end of the line," he said last week at the opening session of the annual Southern Maryland tobacco auction at Planter's Warehouse Inc. "At best, it will be a part-time occupation to supplement income from an outside job."

The numbers back up his concern. Acreage planted in tobacco has dropped from 27,000 in 1983 to 6,500 acres last year.

The value of the crop has fallen from an inflation-adjusted $96.5 million in 1982 to $15.6 million last year.

It's estimated that only 9.1 million pounds of tobacco will be sold at auction this year, down from 38.3 million for the 1982 crop.

James Hanson, an extension economist with the University of Maryland, College Park is worried about the size of Maryland's crop.

With only 6,500 acres planted last year, Hanson feels that the crop is "dangerously close" to the point that it may not produce enough leaf to satisfy the needs of foreign tobacco companies.

"It's not like you trickle down to zero," Hanson said. "If we don't have enough tobacco to fill the recipes of the foreign cigarette makers, Maryland's tobacco industry will become extinct before the acreage reaches zero."

Tobacco exports represent the heart of Maryland's tobacco industry. Foreign cigarette makers buy the top-quality leaf and pay top dollar. They directly purchase a third of the leaf grown here, and industry officials believe that another third passes through domestic brokers to the export market.

Hanson fears that if the European cigarette makers change their blend and Maryland's tobacco is no longer used, "that would be the end of the Maryland market."

Only about 2 percent of Maryland Type 32 is used in domestic cigarettes. It is added to make cigarettes burn evenly. But considerably more local leaf is used in the stronger-tasting European cigarettes. One popular brand in Switzerland uses 50 percent Maryland leaf.

Hanson said the foreign tobacco companies are becoming increasingly concerned about how much Maryland tobacco they can get to meet their future needs.

Earl "Buddy" Hance, chairman of the Maryland Tobacco Authority, an industry regulatory agency, is also worried about the future of the state's oldest industry, which represents less than 1 percent of the tobacco grown in the United States.

"The future is very questionable," he said. "With the price of cigarettes on the rise and all of the lawsuits, there is not much reason to be optimistic."

Hance and many of the growers point to the rapidly changing landscape of Southern Maryland as another major threat to tobacco.

Houses continue to sprout on land where tobacco was king for more than 350 years.

In terms of population, Southern Maryland is the fastest-growing region of the state, according to Gary V. Hodge, an adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, an industry marketing and promotion organization.

Hodge listed the expanding growth and development, which has made land in the region more valuable for development than agriculture as one of the biggest threats to tobacco's future.

He also listed the aging population of farmers, the reluctance of their children to take over the farms, and the high price and scarcity of labor as other major threats.

Hodge remains optimistic. Over the last decade, he said, the downward trend has slowed. He blames the droughts of the past three years for reductions in production. The best insight into the future of Maryland's tobacco industry could come in the fall when growers are scheduled to sign up to grab a share of the state's money from the national tobacco settlement.

Under terms of legislation passed by the General Assembly last year, the state is to use 5 percent of the tobacco settlement to buy out tobacco farmers or to pay them to switch to other crops.

"Tobacco farmers are tired of being beat on," said Hanson. "They might take the money and run."

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