Heading down a new tobacco road

A University of Maryland research project seeks to juice up the familiar plant and develop it as a source of proteins for numerous uses by other industries.

July 29, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO - The tobacco thriving here on the University of Maryland's research farm looks like the plant that dominated state agriculture for centuries, the leaves mint green, fuzzy to the touch, long and wide as the blades of a ceiling fan.

These plants have been to college, though, and might be nearing the threshold of a future that generations of tobacco farmers would scarcely recognize.

For one thing, this vision of Maryland tobacco's future is stamped "NO SMOKING." Think, instead, of tobacco as a component of cosmetics, diet supplements, medicine or shampoo. Consider high-protein fluids for kidney dialysis patients, and drugs that might someday be used to treat, of all things, cancer and heart disease.

It all seems at least as unlikely as the idea that Maryland tobacco has a future at all. Growing on a testing ground here no bigger than a Major League Baseball diamond, this tobacco might help resurrect a Maryland business shrunk to a fragment of its old self since the 1980s, most recently by a program that has paid farmers millions to stop growing tobacco for smoking.

Since the buyouts, a question has been hanging in the air, said Gary V. Hodge, a Southern Maryland regional planner who helped run the tobacco program that began in 1998, cutting Maryland tobacco sales from 9.58 million pounds to 1.4 million this year.

"Now what?" Hodge said. "We're trying to answer that question."

He was standing under a hazy sky on the test patch off Route 202 recently with a group of men involved in the University of Maryland's Alternative Uses of Tobacco Project. These men have doctoral degrees and business experience. They are schooled less in the arduous work of bringing tobacco to local auctions year after year than in chemical extraction technology and multibillion-dollar markets in pharmaceuticals.

The future of Maryland tobacco and the state's agricultural landscape might lie there.

Because along with the aroma, taste and nicotine buzz smokers crave, tobacco offers proteins. Extracted in pure form, the protein might compete with milk, egg and soy proteins used in sundry ways by industry.

The hope, said Hodge, is to restore the economic impact of Maryland tobacco, which in 1997 accounted for two-thirds of Southern Maryland's farm income while growing on less than 5 percent of farmland in those five counties.

Neil A. Belson, president of Pharmacognetics Inc., a biotechnology company in Port Tobacco and a member of the project team, called the effort part of a larger shift from petroleum-based to plant-based industrial materials, "from a hydrocarbon to a carbohydrate economy."

All plants produce proteins and other compounds, but the reason scientists are so enthusiastic about tobacco in particular is evident even to the untrained observer visiting the research farm. In a word: volume.

"Bulk is a key appeal of tobacco," Belson said.

The plants can be grown in dense thickets, sprouting leaves nearly as long as your arm and a couple hands across. Crop science people call all this green stuff "biomass," and tobacco produces more of it per acre than any other crop.

That matters when the compounds you're trying to extract constitute very small percentages of the whole plant. The more mass you start with, the more of any given material you might get.

This means treating Maryland tobacco in a new and rather brutal way. For much of its centuries-long history, the plant has been babied step by step.

The Maryland tobacco farmer typically transplants about 6,000 seedlings per acre in spring and harvests once in late summer. The stalks are raised in roomy rows, chopped by hand and hung in barns to air dry through the fall and winter, the dried reddish-brown leaves then carefully stripped off by hand, tied in fan-like clusters and bundled off to market in spring. Maryland tobacco farmers could hardly take more care if they were raising orchids.

Tobacco's steady decline here beginning in the 1980s had much to do with the difficulty of finding labor to raise it. The Alternative Uses project suggests a new, mechanized and high-volume tobacco crop that would demand less labor.

The researchers have devised direct seeding methods to raise about 90,000 plants per acre, harvesting two or three times a year. Leaves harvested by machine on the research farm recently have been trucked to the University of Maryland's College Park campus and unloaded at the old creamery, where the school once made ice cream.

Lately, professors and graduate students working there have run a few tests on a noisy configuration of conveyors, hammer choppers and a screw press, cutting about 200 pounds of tobacco leaves into particles as fine as "McCormick spices," said Y. Martin Lo, an associate professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Nutrition and Food Science.

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