Opening-day leaf prices disappoint Md. farmers

This year's auction may be state's last, some growers fear

Volume for sale plummets

March 20, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO - Tobacco growers gathered at Planter's Tobacco Warehouse here and at four other sales barns in Southern Maryland yesterday, looking for a sign that this year's auction would not be the state's last.

Many farmers were seeking a signal from buyers, especially those representing tobacco companies in Switzerland and Germany, that interest is still strong in the Maryland Type 32 leaf grown throughout the region.

But the hoped-for signal didn't come yesterday.

A 10-cent-a-pound price increase over last year would have been the encouragement the growers needed to reject a lucrative state buyout and continue growing a crop that has been a large part of Maryland history for nearly 370 years.

As late as the mid-1960s, tobacco was considered the backbone of Southern Maryland's economy.

"It has been a little disappointing," auctioneer Bob Cage said during a break in the selling. "Considering the supply and demand situation, farmers were expecting a little more money this year."

Cage was referring to an estimated 2.5 million pounds of leaf scheduled for sale this year, down from 8.1 million pounds last year.

He said prices at the opening session were about the same as those last year, when the average price for the entire auction was $1.69 a pound. That was slightly less than what farmers received in 1980.

"But this is just the first day," Cage said. "Prices can still go up."

If that's going to happen, it will probably be as a result of increased interest in Maryland tobacco from foreign cigarette companies, which traditionally purchase 60 percent of Maryland's crop, taking the best leaf and paying the best price.

James Henry Jones was one of those disappointed.

The 83-year-old farmer pulled the sales ticket off a chest-high, 290-pound basket of reddish-brown leaf and looked at the price that was offered.

"A dollar sixty," he said. "That's outrageous. That's the price we were getting 15 years ago.

"I've been growing tobacco as long as I can remember," said Jones, who looks younger than his years.

"I was just a little kid - maybe 4 or 5 - I was cutting tobacco. Spearing tobacco. I was helping my father."

Jones is selling 6 acres of leaf grown on a farm near Lothian at auction this year.

He expects this to be his last crop.

And he expects this to be the state's last auction.

"The Lord knows I love growing tobacco," he said softly and with a smile. "But I have to get out. I can't make no money, no money, no money. I'm hurting just thinking about it. I've grown tobacco my whole life.

"Everybody's getting out. You can't make a living at it anymore. You used to make a good living," he said of a farming operation that allowed him to raise a family of nine.

At Planter's Warehouse yesterday, a few baskets sold for $2 a pound, but $1.60 and $1.80 was more common.

David L. Conrad, a tobacco extension agent with the University of Maryland, said prices seemed to get stronger later in the day. "I think it is going to be good market," he said.

"I will be shell-shocked if the average price is not higher than last year."

Doug Hartge, a 37-year-old Anne Arundel County grower, was one of a few farmers who folded the sales ticket on at least some of his baskets of tobacco, the symbolic way of rejecting the buyer's price.

"This is some of the best tobacco I've ever grown," he said of a pile marked $1.80 a pound. "I'm going to take a gamble. I'll sell it later in hopes of getting 10 or 20 cents more. I might get less. It's a gamble."

This year includes seven selling days, down from 15 last year.

"I can remember when the sale used to run into September," said Cage. "That was back in the 1960s, when we were selling 40 million pounds."

Farmers who hoped that a smaller crop would result in higher pricesl have until January 2004 to accept a state buyout that would pay them $1 a pound for 10 years to get out of the business.

The state Agriculture Department estimates that 80 percent of Maryland's tobacco farmers have signed up for the buyout.

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