`I ain't going to cry'

Tobacco: The state's annual auction turns grim, with low prices offered for a prime harvest and many farmers about to stop growing the crop.

March 14, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

HUGHESVILLE - As he has for nearly four decades, auctioneer Walter Wilkerson called out prices for Southern Maryland tobacco in a rapid-fire sing-song while marching down aisles of reddish-brown leaves piled waist-high. He might as well have been singing a dirge for the region's signature crop and for the auction that has been a rite of spring for 62 years among farmers in Maryland's five southernmost counties.

Maryland's monthlong tobacco auction began at a sprawling, red warehouse in Hughesville yesterday on a note of nostalgia: Roughly half of the growers of the region's traditional cash crop have signed up to take the state's offer to pay them not to raise it anymore.

Resignation turned to anger, though, as prices offered by cigarette industry buyers for the best harvest in many years failed to meet many farmers' expectations.

"Man, this is ugly. This is ugly as hell," grumbled a grizzled grower, leaning on a basket of hand-tied tobacco leaves. Some farmers showed their displeasure by refusing the bids, folding up the tickets atop their piles, or "burdens" as they are called.

Ugly or not, it's the last call for many tobacco farmers, who have begun getting paid $1 a pound for 10 years by the state for the crop they will no longer produce. The size of the annual buyout checks distributed over the next decade will be based on farmers' recent harvests.

Maryland is the only state that is using its share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, $4.2 billion, to pay farmers to stop growing the crop, which for more than 300 years dominated the economy and culture in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties. State officials have said they expect the buyout to slash the state's annual harvest of 9 million pounds in recent years.

Many at yesterday's auction at the Bargain Barn were ready to walk away from their historic livelihood, especially after hearing the lackluster bidding. "I ain't going to cry about it," said Jimmy Quaid, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer from Clements in St. Mary's County.

Quaid, 56, raised 25 acres of leaf last year, a far cry from the 50 to 75 acres the family once grew. Difficulty finding enough helpers to plant, tend and harvest the labor-intensive crop has forced many farmers to scale back, and the indifferent prices paid for their efforts have helped drive many to take the state's buyout.

"After this year, we're just going to raise corn" and soybeans, Quaid said. But with other crop prices even lower than those for tobacco, he said, he expects to keep supplementing his income by doing excavation work for Southern Maryland's booming construction industry.

Top-notch tobacco brought $1.90 to $2 a pound yesterday, but prices for the rest dipped as low as $1.40. The bids were roughly the same as those at the opening of the auction last year, but growers said they should be getting far more because this crop was the best in many years.

"It's a crazy market," said Gilbert "Buddy" Bowling, owner of the red warehouse in this Charles County community, which has been the host of tobacco auctions since they began in 1938. It is one of two in Hughesville and five in Maryland, with two in Upper Marlboro and one in Waldorf.

About 2,200 bundles of tobacco - representing a year's toil for as many as 200 farmers - jammed the acre of floor space inside Bowling's warehouse.

Bowling, 66, accompanied auctioneer Wilkerson on his rounds, starting the bidding on each lot of tobacco by naming a price. A half-dozen buyers representing U.S. and European cigarette manufacturers marched down the adjoining aisle and responded to the staccato commentary with raised fists or hands, signaling their offers, usually lower than the opening bid. A clerk scribbled down the final price and dropped the ticket atop each pile sold.

The warehouse owner bought some of the best-quality tobacco for himself, paying $1.90 to $2 a pound. He was trying to bid prices up because he gets a 4.5 percent commission on all sales. He said he will resell the lots he acquired later, probably at a loss.

As auctioneer and buyers wound through the warehouse, anxious farmers trailed behind, checking the bid tickets and comparing their prices with those on neighboring piles. Often they ended up disgruntled.

Nearly three-fourths of the state's 900 tobacco growers have applied for buyouts, and about half have signed binding contracts. Brad Powers, deputy agriculture secretary, predicted that many of the others will follow suit unless prices improve before the auction ends next month.

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