Tobacco's addictive sale

Habit: Ex-tobacco growers attend the state's annual auction, drawn by old friendships and the past.

March 24, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

HUGHESVILLE - Like many of his fellow tobacco growers, Calvin Bowling took a buyout check from the state to quit raising the crop three years ago. But that didn't stop the 66-year-old Charles County farmer from showing up at yesterday's annual tobacco auction in Southern Maryland - an event vanishing almost before his eyes - to enjoy a chat and a puff with friends.

The auction, which began yesterday and is expected to last seven days, is the one time and the one way tobacco is sold in the state. Some former tobacco growers still go to the auction because it allows them to see friends and hear whether it will be a good year or a bad year for the crop first peddled in Maryland in the 17th century.

At next year's auction, those who don't grow tobacco might outnumber those who do. Besides, there may not be enough growers for an auction next year.

About 85 percent of the state's tobacco farmers, who grow almost 95 percent of the crop, have signed up for a state buyout program aimed at getting Marylanders out of the business. The $70 million or more for the buyout came from the $4 billion Maryland received as part of the $246 billion settlement in 1998 between states and cigarette companies who were sued to recover the health costs caused by smoking.

"I signed the papers last year," said Joseph Vallandingham, a 47-year-old farmer from St. Mary's County. "It's strange. All our people signed."

Maryland's farmers had rebuffed government's extended hand for years, declining to participate in a federal New Deal-era allotment system that artificially inflated U.S. tobacco prices in most of the other 15 states that grow tobacco. But the bulk of the state's 1,023 farmers eligible for the buyout couldn't pass up that offer.

Under the buyout formula, they will be paid a $1 for each pound of tobacco they averaged over a three-year period. The payout lasts 10 years. In exchange, the farmers have to stop growing tobacco but stay in agriculture. Many have switched to grains and cattle.

Others refuse to count out tobacco.

"Tobacco is still alive in Maryland," said Gilbert Bowling, owner of the warehouse where the tobacco auction was held. The builders also is used to sell antiques, crafts and discount goods.

In several neat rows a couple hundred feet long and at least 3 feet high, the leaf filled much of the warehouse along Route 5. Tobacco filled another warehouse nearby.

The scene looked timeless except for buyers making bids on handheld computers.

Unable to hear anyone calling out prices, a long line of farmers trailed the buyers, craning their necks to see what was paid for each heap of tobacco. The line moved quietly, with only Bowling expressing a thought or a price from pile to pile.

There used to be several more auction houses around the state, where sales could last for six weeks with many buyers. This year drew three buyers, who planned to ship most of the tobacco to Switzerland and Germany where it will be rolled into premium cigarettes. The first few rows of leaf brought $1.85 to $2 a pound, up from a lackluster $1.52 average last year.

This year's production was the lowest in state history, at about 2.175 million pounds grown on 1,500 acres.

The buyout sped the decline but didn't begin it. The state's crop began shrinking in the 1980s when demand for cigarettes fell nationally. A half-century ago, by comparison, Maryland farmers grew 40 million pounds of tobacco on 50,000 acres.

The Wood brothers are among a handful of farmers to refuse the buyout.

Victor, Gerald, Steve and Pat Wood learned tobacco farming from their father and said the buyout money wasn't enough to induce them to retool their 20-acre St. Mary's farm. Three of the brothers sat in their truck yesterday waiting for the buyers to bid on their tobacco. The wait was made longer because the buyers bid on the tobacco via their handheld computers.

"You can grow thousands of acres of beans and corn and still not make a living, but with tobacco you can make a living," said Victor Wood, although he noted that prices have been about $2 a pound for 20 years. "You've got a say-so over your own stuff, and no one can tell you what to do."

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