They gave up tobacco, found a sweeter scent

Flowers: Some growers in Southern Maryland have replaced their tobacco farms with greenhouses.

April 19, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PORT REPUBLIC - In a giant greenhouse that once housed a half-million tiny tobacco plants, Earl "Buddy" Hance ambles though a colorful sea of geraniums, impatiens and marigolds.

Hance is one of the more than 650 Southern Maryland tobacco farmers who have accepted a state buyout to quit growing tobacco and are looking to move into other lines of farming.

He switched to flowers. He has more than 2,000 pots of geraniums and impatiens in a 35-by-300-foot greenhouse in the back yard of the Broomes Island Road home where he grew up.

A second greenhouse, of equal size, contains more than a 1,000 4-inch and 6-inch pots of purple, red, white and orange impatiens. A smaller greenhouse stands empty. Hance said that 900 one-foot-tall pots of geraniums were shipped out recently.

Hance, and his brother Tommy, grow the flowers for Bell Nursery, a wholesale nursery in Burtonsville, which supplies a number of retailers including area Home Depot stores, according to Gary Mangum, a co-owner of Bell. Mangum said the nursery is looking at signing up three new growers next year.

Bell supplies Hance with the plants. They come grouped in pots about a foot tall and a foot in diameter. At that point, the plants "are just little plugs," Hance said. "We grow them for about six weeks, until the flowers begin to drape over the sides of the pots."

A nonsmoker, Hance said his decision to quit tobacco farming was a financial one. He sees the day, and he thinks it is not too far off, when Maryland will no longer have a tobacco industry and there will be no demand for the type of leaf grown in the state.

"I'm in business to make money," he said. "It doesn't matter to me if that's growing flowers or growing tobacco."

He took the state buyout, which pays him $1 a pound for a period of 10 years. The poundage is based on the average size of his tobacco crop in 1996, 1997 and 1998. At that time, Hance was growing about 80,000 pounds of tobacco a year.

Under terms of the buyout, farmers are prohibited from selling their land for development, according to Donald Vandrey, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Hance acknowledges that his flower business is not nearly as lucrative as tobacco, but he's hoping this will change in the future.

"Growing flowers generates a little less than half of the tobacco income," he said, "but it also involves less work.

"We don't do any of the marketing. We spend about two or three hours each morning watering the plants, checking for insects and giving them fertilizer when they need it.

"Then there are times when you have to pinch the buds off the geraniums until they reach a certain size," he said. He laughed and added: "It's not a lot of fun when you pinch the buds on 5,000 plants."

Hance hopes to increase his flower production in the future to bring it more in line with his past tobacco income.

Hagner R. Mister, state agriculture secretary, said the exodus from tobacco is changing Maryland's traditional tobacco growing areas.

"Farming is changing in Southern Maryland, and it's changing rapidly," Mister said. "Farmers in that part of the state have been growing tobacco for 300 plus years, but my guess is that will all but end in another three or four years."

Mister said the 654 farmers who have signed up to take the buyout represent about 80 percent of the state's tobacco production. Another 345 farmers are still eligible for the buyout.

The average check to farmers was $11,000 last year, and to date the state has paid tobacco farmers nearly $12 million to change to other crops. The money comes from the state's settlement of a lawsuit against the cigarette companies.

Mister said many of the farmers getting out of tobacco are moving into new lines of agriculture to service a growing population with money to spend.

"This is the fastest-growing region of the state," Mister said, "and the new people coming in seem to be making good money."

According to Mister, who raised tobacco on his farm near Prince Frederick until a few years ago, it is difficult to find another crop that will match the $2,500 to $3,000 per acre in income that tobacco produces.

"But there are niche markets, like selling produce and cut flowers, where farmers can make a good bit of money from a small farm by selling directly to the consumer," said the state official.

He said other tobacco farmers have turned to boarding horses for people moving into the region with a love for country living but not nearly enough land for livestock.

Mister said that a lot of the owners of small farms are renting their land to other farmers who can accumulate enough acreage to make growing corn, wheat or soybeans feasible.

Mister said the key to a successful transition is to find a niche market where there is not a lot of competition.

John C. Prouty's family grew tobacco on a small farm near Huntingtown, in Calvert County, for at least 200 years before Prouty switched to cut flowers.

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