A lifestyle going up in smoke

Tobacco: As auction period rolls around in Hughesville, a state-funded buyout of the crop has farmers weighing their future.

April 01, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

HUGHESVILLE - The sing-song voice of the auctioneer and the train of farmers that followed wound through rows of golden brown tobacco bales in the Hughesville Bargain Barn Warehouse yesterday - a timeless scene, little changed from Colonial days or the warehouse's beginning in the 1930s.

But the emotion that lingered in the sweet, aromatic air of the tobacco auction was distinctly modern: the anxiety that occurs when a tradition is coming to an end. It's a way of life that is cracking and crumbling like the dry tobacco leaves on the warehouse floor, blowing out the open doors along Route 5 and disappearing on the Southern Maryland wind.

"Tobacco has been in my family since the Ark and the Dove," said 34-year-old St. Mary's County farmer Jay Spence, referring to the ships that brought Maryland's first European settlers in 1633. "It's an old family tradition that is, unfortunately, dying off. I'm one of the last, and I don't know how long I'll be doing it."

Two ramshackle warehouses practically side by side in this one-stoplight Charles County town are among all that remains of an industry that dominated Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties.

The state-funded buyout of the politically unpopular crop has thinned the farmers' ranks, and the other three warehouses - two in Upper Marlboro, one in Waldorf - remained closed this year. The auction period that used to stretch for weeks and months was condensed to just seven days in Hughesville. It will end Thursday.

Agriculture officials say the state's tobacco harvest has plummeted from more than 30 million pounds in the mid-1980s to a projected 2.5 million pounds this year.

Yesterday, midway through the auction period, farmers stood stoically among the leaves. They can see the end and feel it, they say. They dread it, and curse it, and pledge to fight it - but, reluctantly, say they fear there's no future in tobacco.

Spence, like many other farmers at the auction, seemed to be weighing his future with each priced pile. Should he take the buyout - a decision he must make by July - or cling to the lifestyle? Down the aisle, a 42-year-old Mechanicsville farmer said he made up his mind on the auction's opening day last week: He'll take the buyout, reluctantly.

Only two buyers were bidding for Maryland's Type 32 tobacco at yesterday's auction, compared with five last year. And the prices - while fair, many said, for a drought-stricken crop in an unfavorable market - bought little hope. Prices last week averaged just under $1.62 per pound, compared with $1.72 at this time last year.

The state buyout, funded by Maryland's share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, promises to pay farmers $1 per pound for 10 years to get out of the business.

Since 2001, when the program started, 79 percent of the state's nearly 1,000 eligible growers have taken the deal, according to the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, which manages the program. And with many bundles fetching just 76 cents a pound yesterday, it is no wonder.

When he saw that price stuck in the top of his labor-intensive crop, Chris Swarey, 23, folded his bid tickets in quiet despair - an indication that he won't take the bid, and will try his chances again later this week.

Swarey, one of the Amish growers who are beginning to dominate Maryland tobacco, won't consider the buyout. Neither will any of his Amish brethren, he said.

"We don't take government handouts," said the Charlotte Hall resident.

Many holdouts hope that the Amish will help sustain the market and keep it from disappearing completely from Maryland - where, in Colonial days, the leaf could be used to pay taxes and church tithes.

Joe Nye, 27, calls the Amish "the saviors" of the tobacco market. A Davidsonville resident, Nye said he began growing tobacco at the beginning of the buyout to help save the dying industry.

"If we can get through until the buyout is done, that should be the bottom of the market," Nye said.

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