Program might snuff out tobacco as major Md. crop

Unexpected number of farmers line up for state buyout

July 19, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

HUGHESVILLE - Standing chest-high, with their orange, trumpet-shaped flowers, Steven H. Walter's tobacco plants haven't looked this healthy in years.

Nature has smiled on Southern Maryland's lush, green tobacco fields this spring and summer. But the 39-year-old Charles County farmer sees little reason to celebrate as he prepares to harvest the region's traditional cash crop in the next few weeks.

No matter how bountiful it turns out to be, this year's harvest is shaping up to be the last for Walter and for most of Southern Maryland's tobacco growers.

The government has made them an offer many feel they can't afford to refuse, even if it means the end of an industry that has shaped the region's culture and economy for 360 years.

"If they pay me to go out, I'm gone," says Walter, who with his aging father and uncle raises 30 acres of tobacco on their 600-acre farm.

"It's too iffy anymore," he says, leaning on a hoe and peering at a cloudy horizon.

The state is offering to pay tobacco farmers to switch to another crop, using some of the $4 billion that Maryland expects to collect from a national lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers.

Weary of farm labor shortages, legal and political assaults on smoking, and slipping prices, the state's tobacco growers see the buyout as a graceful way to jump from a sinking industry.

"We've gotten discouraged and disgusted," says Walter, who is president of the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, a growers' group formed to promote their product.

"You can only fight a battle for so long. ... You've got to make a living," he said.

Two-thirds of 406 tobacco farmers who responded to a survey recently said they would take the state's money to try growing other crops.

Applications aren't due until fall, but at that rate, the buyout pot of $5 million for next year won't be big enough. State officials are mulling how to accommodate the groundswell to get out.

"I don't think anybody expected to get a response of this nature," says Bobby Swann, director of the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, which is to handle the buyouts.

Despite earlier government efforts to convert growers to other crops, Swann says, "it's been very difficult to wean farmers away from something that's been a 300-year [tradition] in this area, where people and their families spent lifetimes raising tobacco."

Tobacco has flavored life in Southern Maryland since shortly after English colonists settled in St. Mary's County in 1635. Unrepentant in the face of today's anti-smoking crusades, Charles still crowns a teen-age "Queen Nicotina" every year at its county fair.

But the crop's hold on the region's economy has slipped: harvests have declined from a peak of 46 million pounds statewide in 1946 to 9 million pounds last year.

The amount of land planted in tobacco in Calvert, Charles, St. Mary's, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties likewise has shrunk, from 50,000 acres just after World War II to 6,500 acres now.

Invasion of suburbia

Farming of all types is in retreat in Southern Maryland, as forests and fields give way to sprawling suburban development. Difficulties finding laborers for the grueling harvesting, curing and stripping of tobacco also have hampered many growers.

"This was all tobacco country," says Walter, when his father and uncle helped carve the family farm out of the forest in the 1930s.

They tried to make a go of it growing strawberries and asparagus but soon joined their neighbors. Their tobacco plot has shrunk in recent years, Walter says, and with his elders now in their 70s, the family has had to rely on Mexican farm hands.

For those farmers who have stuck with it, tobacco has remained - until recently, at least - one of the few crops they could count on amid the fickleness of weather and commodity markets.

Though Maryland produces only a fraction of the tobacco grown in such states as North Carolina and Kentucky, it is in demand by Swiss cigarette manufacturers, who regularly buy most of the harvest and help supply free seed to growers.

The average price paid for Maryland tobacco, $1.92 a pound in 1997, has declined. Though growers at this spring's auction were getting as much as $1.77 a pound, by the end some were offered only 40 cents a pound - a precipitous drop that some took as an omen of worse to come.

"A farmer can take a few burdens of tobacco at 40 cents [a pound]," says state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and a grower himself. "But those farmers that had a lot of tobacco at the end, that's devastating to them."

Another factor in the buyout's appeal is the farmers' advancing age - 62, on average. For many of them, the money might help ease them into retirement.

Under the plan worked out between Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly, farmers would be paid $1 per pound of tobacco they do not grow, with the total payment based on their average harvests over the past three years.

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