More money sought for tobacco buyout

Officials surprised by farmers' interest

June 29, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Given the chance, Maryland's tobacco farmers would take a state buyout offer and grow some other crop. The problem is, the state didn't set aside enough from its share of the national tobacco settlement to cover the costs.

State and local officials are trying to figure out how to make the money stretch far enough to pay more farmers than they expected to stop growing tobacco.

State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Charles County Democrat who shepherded through the General Assembly a plan to pay Southern Maryland farmers to not raise tobacco, said yesterday that he might try to persuade the legislature to spend more on the farmers during the next session.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is unlikely to support dipping into money earmarked for anti-smoking, health care and cancer research programs to help pay farmers, his spokesman, Mike Morrill, said yesterday.

The program is set up to pay over time, which means "some people who want a buyout won't get it for three or four years," Morrill said. State officials won't know for sure how many farmers want to take the buyout until formal applications are due in the fall.

Maryland is to receive $4 billion over the next 20 years from the tobacco settlement. Most of that money is to go into health and education programs, but the General Assembly has set aside about $78 million, including $9 million this year, to help farmers who agree to stop raising tobacco.

Under the program, Maryland would pay farmers $1 per pound, based on their average harvests of the past three years, not to grow tobacco. Robert Swann, executive director of the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, which is to administer the buyouts, said tobacco farmers average about 20,000 pounds a year.

Swann is surveying more than 1,100 farmers. Of the 400 who have responded, 70 percent said they would take the buyout, and 20 percent said they were interested but wanted more information, and the remaining 10 percent wanted to make a transition to another crop or weren't interested.

"You figure an average of $20,000 a farmer, and 400 farmers already, that's $8 million a year. We don't have enough money to do that," Swann said. "The only thing we can do is go back to the General Assembly and say our program is so successful, we need more money."

Swann suggested shifting money from other programs or issuing revenue bonds, but it is not clear how the shortfall can be covered. Morrill said the governor had not heard of the problem until yesterday.

Tobacco, once so central to Southern Maryland's economy that the Charles County fair queen was called Queen Nicotina, has become the object of opprobrium. Maryland's production has fallen from 38.3 million pounds in 1982 to 9.1 million this year.

Swiss cigarette manufacturers, who buy most of Maryland's crop, are threatening to cancel their orders if production doesn't increase. Competition is coming from farmers in Brazil, who are beginning to grow the same kind of tobacco produced in Maryland.

The farmers, whose average age is 62, have "seen the handwriting on the wall," said Middleton, who also raises tobacco, and they're looking for a way out. For many of them, the buyout money, which would cover their loss of income from tobacco, will help them retire. And they can keep farming, as long as they don't raise tobacco.

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