Amish take up tobacco farming in Cecil

As crop fades statewide, farmers find a niche

March 28, 2004|By Jen DeGregorio | Jen DeGregorio,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Amish farmers from Cecil County were among those attending the opening of last week's tobacco auction in Charles County, where the Farmers and Hughesville warehouses are the state's only remaining tobacco auction sites.

Although the number of tobacco farmers has fallen in almost every county since Maryland started its buyout of farmers in 2001, the number is increasing in Cecil County, traditionally a nontobacco area.

The reason is the Amish.

Amish tobacco farmers - who for religious reasons do not participate in government programs - have crossed the Pennsylvania border into Cecil to try their luck at tobacco in Maryland.

They are bucking a trend. Many farmers - tempted by the buyout or discouraged by a subsequent loss of facilities and farming support - have abandoned the crop.

Buddy Hance, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer from Anne Arundel County, said he had no choice but to give up his crop last year, in light of the 50-mile trip to the Charles County auction and the lack of resources for tobacco farming, such as fertilizer.

"It has no infrastructure. I didn't want to take it [the buyout], but I just had to take it," Hance said.

Hance is not alone. Of the eligible farmers, 77 percent have joined the program, accounting for 89 percent of the eligible tobacco crop. Officials project that 86 percent of farmers will have joined by next year, accounting for 94 percent of the crop.

But not the Amish.

"While the majority of folks have taken the buyout, it's still a viable crop," and the Amish are capitalizing on what is left of the market, said Scott Rowe, a Cecil County extension agent. All but one of the tobacco farmers in Cecil are Amish, he said.

"The Amish are looking to buy land and expand their communities, and the fact that Maryland tobacco prices are higher than in Pennsylvania" has drawn them to the state, said David Conrad, a state tobacco expert and an extension agent in Prince George's County.

Maryland's climate is different enough from Pennsylvania's to yield a higher-quality leaf that cigarette companies prefer over most other types of tobacco nationwide, Conrad said.

That's why Maryland tobacco brings a higher price than Pennsylvania leaf does. Even during the 2002 drought, Maryland tobacco brought 10 cents a pound more than Pennsylvania's.

Rowe estimated that more than half of the state's tobacco growers are Amish, most of them living in Charles and St. Mary's counties.

"The Amish see tobacco as a cash crop to help pay their mortgages on farms they've bought here in the last five years or so," Rowe said in an earlier interview. "We have about 17 or 18 active growers in Cecil."

Skilled farmers can make $1,800 to $1,900 an acre growing tobacco. State officials predict that about 2.2 million pounds of tobacco will go to market in the state this year. Five years ago, state farmers brought about 8.3 million pounds of tobacco to sell at auction sites across the state, Rowe said.

This year's opening auction day 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 an average of $1.52 last year.

Though the Amish will not accept the buyout soon, Rowe said, the diminishing number of auction warehouses might eventually push them out of the market, killing Maryland's tobacco industry for good.

The secret to farming is "finding a niche market that you can exploit," he said. He predicts that the Amish will remain in the market for as long as the niche remains.

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