Tobacco crop falloff put at 50%

Expected drop in '01 is linked to buyout of state's growers

Southern Maryland staple

April 14, 2001|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Tobacco farming, the economic backbone of Southern Maryland's economy for more than 300 years, is expected to drop 50 percent or more this year, state agriculture officials said yesterday.

Last year's crop - 8.09 million pounds - was sold at an auction that ended last week. That crop brought an average price of $1.69 a pound and contributed $13.7 million to the region's economy.

This year's crop, which will be sold at auction early next spring, is expected to be no more than 4 million pounds - and perhaps as low as 3 million pounds, said Hagner R. Mister, Maryland's agriculture secretary.

Tobacco production has declined steadily since the early 1980s. Agriculture Department records show that 38.3 million pounds of tobacco - called Maryland Type 32 - sold in 1982 for $58.3 million.

At that time, tobacco was still referred to as the economy of Southern Maryland. Adjusted for inflation, the 1982 sale would be valued at $106 million today.

The sharp decline in tobacco production this year is attributed to the state's tobacco buyout program, which pays farmers not to grow the crop.

"I think the governor's buyout program has destroyed the Maryland tobacco industry as we know it," said Tony Evans, a marketing specialist with the state Department of Agriculture.

He said three of the state's five tobacco warehouses may not open next year.

"I think the auction system will be gone by next year," Evans said. "I think a couple of the warehouses will stock tobacco and invite the cigarette companies to come up for informal bidding. It would be like a private sale."

However, others are not so quick to mark the demise of the industry and the auction system in Maryland.

Earl Griffith, the tobacco industry's representative on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, said buyers have told him they intend to return next year.

"Nobody knows for sure," Evans added. "It is still too soon to say one way or the other what will happen."

Mister said about 70 percent of Maryland tobacco growers already have signed up for the state buyout. Farmers still have several years to take the state's money and halt tobacco production.

The next three years are going to be very interesting in Southern Maryland," Mister said.

He noted that the region is the fastest-growing section of the state in terms of real estate development, and that tobacco farmers have yet to find a successful alternative crop.

Hagner said the region is in great need of an incubator vegetable-processing plant. That would allow tobacco growers to convert their farms to the production of corn, tomatoes, green beans and other vegetables.

Evans said the quality of the tobacco sold at this year's auction "was the best in decades. In my opinion, and in the opinion of others in the industry, the price should have been $1.80 or $1.90 a pound. A lot of tobacco should have sold for $2 a pound."

This year's average price of $1.69 a pound was only 3 cents higher than what farmers were paid last year.

Evans said there was not as much demand for Maryland tobacco from the Swiss and German companies this year as last year. "They didn't need as much of our tobacco this year," he said.

The foreign tobacco companies usually buy half of Maryland's crop each year and pay the highest prices.

Maryland tobacco stats

...........................................Avg.

Pounds........................... price/

Year sold* Value* pound

1980 25.3 $43.2 $1.70

1981 33.0 $57.8 $1.75

1982 38.3 $58.3 $1.52

1983 26.5 $27.8 $1.05

1984 28.6 $40.0 $1.40

1985 25.6 $33.4 $1.32

1986 20.2 $23.8 $1.18

1987 11.7 $14.6 $1.25

1988 11.8 $18.9 $1.60

1989 7.7 $13.1 $1.70

1990 9.0 $16.9 $1.87

1991 12.8 $20.7 $1.62

1992 11.8 $19.8 $1.68

1993 11.8 $17.9 $1.51

1994 11.8 $19.2 $1.63

1995 11.5 $19.2 $1.67

1996 9.4 $18.1 $1.92

1997 12.0 $20.1 $1.71

1998 9.6 $15.6 $1.63

1999 9.4 $15.7 $1.66

2000 8.1 $13.7 $1.69

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