Tobacco farmers won't fight switch

Four are the first to take buyout deal offered by Maryland

January 30, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

PORT REPUBLIC - For more than four decades, James Freeland has been one of the first farmers in Calvert County to plant, harvest and prepare his tobacco crop for sale.

At age 74, he also is one of the first to accept the state's offer to pay Southern Maryland tobacco farmers to stop cultivating a plant that has defined this region for the past 360 years.

"I don't know how I'm going to make it, but I'm going to try," Freeland said.

In a bittersweet ceremony to launch the state's buyout of tobacco growers, agriculture officials handed out checks yesterday to the first four farmers who agreed to give up their traditional cash crop. Politicians and growers who gathered in front of the stacked bales of brown leaf at the Hance farm said the occasion likely marks the beginning of the end for a deeply rooted way of life.

"I'm sad to see it go," said state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat who recalled hot summers he spent as a boy harvesting tobacco by hand. It was "the worst job in the world," he said, "but it made us."

Maryland is the only state using part of its $4.2 billion tobacco lawsuit settlement to pay farmers to stop producing the crop. About 350 growers from the five tobacco-producing counties of Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's have returned signed contracts agreeing to terms of the buyout, officials say, but about two-thirds of 961 eligible farmers have indicated an interest. The deadline for signing up is Feb. 22.

State officials say they expect the buyout to slash Maryland's annual tobacco production - 9.4 million pounds this year, earning farmers $15.7 million.

Farmers taking the buyout are eligible to be paid $1 per pound of tobacco no longer produced over the next 10 years.

The amount of each grower's check varies depending on how much they harvested from 1996 through 1998, but the average payment is $11,000, according to Christine Bergmark, agricultural development director for the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, which is handling the buyout program.

Farmers here have resisted previous appeals to switch from tobacco, saying that no other crop pays as well. But chronic problems finding workers for the labor-intensive harvest, along with erratic weather and market prices, spurred widespread interest last summer when the buyout was being crafted.

Farmers who showed up to witness the first four checks being handed out said they were leaning toward taking the buyout, too, although with mixed emotions.

"It's been my way of life since I was 5 years old," said Dorothy Morgan, 65, who still spends her winter days stripping the dried leaves from the stalk for market. She and her three sons work about 5 acres on the family farm in St. Mary's County. Although it has been a hard decision to make, she said, "at my age, it's an ideal time to quit."

The governor's plan, devised at the urging of the region's legislators, also would include $10 million for agricultural land preservation as an added inducement to keep farmers in this rapidly suburbanizing region from simply selling their former tobacco fields to housing developers.

"We don't want to see the end of tobacco production mean the end of agriculture in southern Maryland," said state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat.

Sporting a blue tobacco company cap, James Freeland said he may switch to growing sweet potatoes or tomatoes on the 5 acres he leases south of Prince Frederick. But, he added, one thing is certain: "I ain't going to quit."

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