Tending to the stepchild of crops

Program helps farmers who raise tobacco as state tries to curb use

May 31, 2000|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

David L. Conrad's state government job puts him in an unusual position.

While Gov. Parris N. Glendening crusades to snuff out tobacco use in Maryland, Conrad is busy distributing seeds to the state's 1,200 tobacco farmers and researching ways to help them improve their crops.

Conrad recognizes the irony of his job as tobacco specialist for the University of Maryland, College Park cooperative extension program. But he says he's filling a traditional role by helping a segment of Maryland's farmers.

"I don't hand out packs of cigarettes and encourage people to smoke," says Conrad, who grew up working on his grandparents' dairy, hog and chicken farms in Hagerstown. "I work with the growers. It's still a legal product."

Conrad, 47, is well aware that tobacco, grown primarily in five Southern Maryland counties, has become the stepchild of Maryland agriculture. During the past decade, the state has distanced itself from involvement with the $15 million-a-year crop.

Maryland's rich history of tobacco trade dates from the arrival of the first European settlers in 1634. The state seal features a tobacco planter, an acknowledgment of the crop's importance to Maryland's development.

In years past, the state's Agriculture Department aggressively promoted Maryland-grown tobacco, which is coveted by European buyers, and paid for receptions held to celebrate the opening of Maryland's tobacco market each spring.

Times and attitudes have changed. The state's involvement is limited to Conrad's work with the agricultural extension program, and to appointing a board that oversees how tobacco leaf is auctioned in Maryland.

Conrad, who is paid $58,676, has an encyclopedic knowledge of tobacco. He knows the chemical components of desirable tobacco leaf, how best to control disease and pests, what fertilizers to use and when to apply them, the optimum times to "top" the plants of their purple-and-white flowers so that leaves can grow to their fullest, and how to factor in temperature and humidity levels during curing.

"Every day I work with this crop, I learn something new," he says.

Conrad took over as the state's tobacco specialist in 1995 but has been working with the plant for 25 years. He grew tobacco himself for 17 years while an extension agent for Prince George's County. His predecessor held the state job for 40 years.

Gary Hodge, an adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, a grower-funded organization formed to promote Maryland-grown tobacco, says Conrad "not only knows his subject cold but is a man to be trusted with handling [the growers'] problems. They trust him in terms of looking at issues that arise on cultivation, handling, fertilizing and controlling diseases and insect problems."

Conrad, who lives in Bowie, works at the university's Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Upper Marlboro, a Prince George's farm complex where other researchers focus on poultry production and various crops.

Last week, he was working with young tobacco seedlings growing in plastic float trays in a nutrient-filled tank of water. Among his tasks was mowing the tops of the plants to achieve more uniform, fuller growth.

In a week or two, the seedlings will be transplanted to fields on the university's farm site. Conrad says they are grown so that research can be conducted on their chemical characteristics and how different growing methods affect them.

Prized in Europe

All tobacco seeds that Maryland farmers use are grown at the site and are distributed free. No public funds are used for seed production, Conrad says. The money comes from the Maryland Tobacco Improvement Foundation, funded by the British American Tobacco Co., Philip Morris Inc. and other tobacco buyers that want to ensure a steady supply of Maryland tobacco and to control the quality of the leaf that is grown.

The brown seed is about the size of a grain of sand. A 1-ounce package contains 350,000 seeds, enough to plant 6 acres of tobacco, Conrad says. That size plot would yield an average harvest of 8,400 pounds of tobacco leaf.

The seeds usually are planted, starting in February, in greenhouses or hydroponic float beds. Depending on the weather, the seedlings are ready to be transplanted in the fields from April through early June. The plants are harvested in August or September, air-cured in barns during the fall and winter, and brought to market in March.

Maryland tobacco -- grown in St. Mary's, Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties -- is known as Type 32 and is especially prized by European cigarette-makers, Conrad says. A small amount also is grown in Cecil County, he says.

The Maryland leaves contain less nitrogen, nicotine and other alkaloids than tobacco grown elsewhere, burn more smoothly, and have a higher "filling capacity," which means more cigarettes can be produced from each pound of tobacco leaf, he says.

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