The Plain People Of Tobacco Road

Maryland's Amish are filling the void left by farmers bought out by the state

April 04, 2004|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN STAFF

Jacob Faiser said he's been growing tobacco since "I became old enough," and plans to continue, even though the majority of tobacco farmers in Maryland have agreed to stop.

He also plans to put each of his nine children to work in the tobacco fields at 16. At 21, they will start their own family and farm.

"It's what we know how to raise," the Amish farmer said matter-of-factly during a trip last month to Hughesville in Charles County to auction off his crop.

Most of Maryland's tobacco growers - about 85 percent who produced 95 percent of the crop - have agreed to switch to other crops under a state buyout program. Few besides the Amish declined the offer.

Among the Amish, taking a government handout is frowned upon and smoking cigarettes is considered too worldly, but growing tobacco is fine.

Until other farmers began backing off tobacco, the Amish contribution wasn't much noticed. The Amish now grow the bulk of the state crop and have caused a historic shift in the geography of Maryland tobacco.

For generations, the crop has been centered in Southern Maryland, where Amish brought their tobacco-growing tradition from Lancaster, Pa., in the 1940s. But when state agriculture officials release their yearly census in June, the tobacco data will likely include for the first time Cecil, the state's northeastern most county, where Amish began settling about five years ago, said Norman Bennett, an agriculture statistician.

Production isn't much in Cecil, but it's amplified by the buyout. Since 2000, 875 of 1,023 eligible Maryland farmers have signed up for the government deal to abandon tobacco growing. They are to receive $1 a pound over the next 10 years based on their average crop from 1997 to 1999.

The state expects to spend $70 million or more on the program out of the $4 billion it received as part of the $246 billion settlement in 1998 between the states and cigarette companies who were sued to recover the health costs caused by smoking.

However, the Amish - and those who study the deeply religious and solitary people - say growing tobacco, a labor-intensive crop, provides a good return and year-round work. It can keep younger members from venturing into a society where they could be tempted by far worse than a cigarette.

"They can raise tobacco on a yearlong cycle and provide work for the family so they don't need to look for employment outside. The more children are exposed to the outside world, they might have temptation and engage in worldly activities," said Donald B. Kraybill, a senior fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Groups at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., and author of several books on the Amish.

John Hostetler, a former author and professor of sociology and anthropology at Temple University who grew up Amish, wrote in his book Amish Society that most Amish are forbidden to smoke. As far back as the 1630s, the Amish saw tobacco use as a waste of time and money, some experts said.

But the Amish in this part of the country consider growing tobacco acceptable because their forefathers did, it's created by God and there's no criticism of it in the Scriptures, Hostetler wrote.

Of the 333 Amish settlements in 28 states and Canada, only those in Pennsylvania and their descendants in Maryland and some in Kentucky grow tobacco. Some Amish in other states smoke pipes and cigars, but the Amish in Ohio, the largest settlement of Amish in the country, do not grow tobacco. Nor do they in other large settlements in Indiana, Michigan and New York.

Maryland and its Amish are not comparatively large producers among the 16 tobacco-growing states. Maryland has grown more pounds of peaches than tobacco in the past four years.

The Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia are the biggest growers, but even their production has dropped significantly as government policy and advertising campaigns led smokers to begin kicking the habit in large numbers a generation ago. Last year, less than 900 million pounds were produced nationwide, down from more than a billion pounds in 2000.

Foreign growers, notably in Brazil and Zimbabwe, have stolen market share from the United States, where prices are artificially inflated through a federal New Deal-era program that imposed quotas on farmers in many of the states that grow tobacco.

Maryland's buyout program pushed it below Pennsylvania's production, but both are near the bottom of the list of tobacco-growing states, with about 2.2 million pounds and 7.9 million pounds respectively last year. Most of Pennsylvania's tobacco is grown in Lancaster County, home of the state's heaviest concentration of Amish and where the soil is more conducive to the crop.

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