So many Maryland tobacco farmers have agreed to a state buyout that 81 percent of the crop will be gone by next year, officials said yesterday.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who launched the buyout program with the goal of getting Maryland out of the tobacco business -- said the level of participation has exceeded all expectations.
Of the 990 farmers eligible for the program, 674 have either taken a buyout or applied to receive one next year.
"We are ending tobacco growing, but beginning a new and vital era of farming that will produce new, life-sustaining crops while also strengthening our agricultural land preservation efforts," Glendening said.
Tobacco has been a staple of Maryland agriculture and an integral part of its culture for more than 350 years. It was the bedrock of the economy of Southern Maryland, the earliest part of the state to be settled.
But its importance has dwindled in recent years under the pressures of development and health concerns.
Two years ago, Glendening proposed and the General Assembly approved a plan to, in effect, wipe out Maryland's oldest industry.
They allocated $78 million over 10 years from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement to help farmers convert to other crops, and to purchase easements to keep the farms as farms.
Last year the state produced about 8.5 million pounds of tobacco -- down from 38.3 million in the bumper crop of 1982.
With 115 farmers applying to join the 559 who accepted the buyout last year, state officials expect next year's crop to be about 1.5 million pounds.
That would be just 19 percent of the 8.1 million pounds grown in 1998, the year the state is using as a benchmark.
The numbers indicate that the industry could soon reach a point where many remaining growers will have little choice but to stop growing tobacco.
By next year's growing season, there might not be enough crop in Maryland to support the economic infrastructure that sustains the industry.
"The farmers that are left are very concerned about the future," said Earle "Buddy" Hance, chairman of the Maryland Tobacco Authority, which oversees the annual tobacco auction.
"Basically, [the buyout program] is not voluntary any more."
Hance, a former tobacco grower who has signed up for the program, said there will be an auction next spring for this year's crop, but many farmers are skeptical about whether there will be more after that.
"It takes a certain amount of volume to sustain the auction," he said.
The program is also cutting into the leadership of the organizations that promote the industry.
In Charles County, Steven H. Walter is stepping down today as president of the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board. He's no longer eligible to serve, having taken the buyout. He said five or six other members of the nine-person board have also agreed to stop production.
"Probably coming next year, there's not going to be a lot of tobacco planted at all," Walter said.
Eligible farmers, those who produced tobacco crops in 1998, receive $1 a pound over the next 10 years based on their average production during the years 1996-1998.
Hance said that even some farmers who had vowed not to take the buyout have now signed up. "The thinking has changed in a lot of people's minds," he said.
Walter said most farmers who signed up for the program think they got a good deal. "The ones that took the buyout don't seem to be missing tobacco right now," he said.
One group that has resisted participation in the program is the Amish, who generally shun involvement with government.
Dave Conrad, regional tobacco specialist with the cooperative extension service at the University of Maryland, estimated that Amish farmers -- who are concentrated in St. Mary's and Cecil counties -- account for about 1 million pounds of Maryland's remaining crop.
He said it is possible that Amish production, combined with several hundred thousand pounds grown in Pennsylvania and some non-Amish holdouts, might be able to keep the industry functioning at a reduced level.
But Don Vandrey, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said that of the five tobacco auction houses active last spring, only perhaps two are expected to be in business next year.
The governor traveled to Southern Maryland yesterday to talk about the buyout program at a news conference on a Charles County farm.
Conrad said Glendening's publicity campaign is designed to herd the holdouts into the program next year.
"It applies additional doom-and-gloom pressure on the outlook," he said.