Flowers bloom, livestock graze in Southern Maryland, where tobacco was king


March 12, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Earl "Buddy" Hance can trace his family to the 1700s when, as he puts it, "They got off the boat at St. Mary's City and began growing tobacco."

For more than 250 years, the Hance family and most of its Southern Maryland neighbors labored to meet the growing demand from Europeans hooked on smoking.

"We grew tobacco forever, as far back as six or seven generations," he said.

But that ended abruptly a few years ago.

Hance was one of the more than 800 farmers who decided to take part in a state program that paid them to stop growing tobacco.

Today, he grows flowers -- colorful impatiens, petunias and snapdragons -- in large greenhouses that once held a half-million tiny tobacco plants. The flowers are sold in Home Depot stores.

Tobacco -- a crop so intertwined in the state's history and culture -- is disappearing rapidly in Southern Maryland.

Its demise is due primarily to the buyout program launched in 2000 by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening that gives farmers a way to transition from growing the crop linked to cancer and other health problems.

As a result, tobacco, which pumped an inflation-adjusted $96.5 million into the Southern Maryland economy as recently as 1982, when it was still referred to as "the industry" of the region, has all but vanished.

Last year, 1.4 million pounds of tobacco was sold, with growers taking home about $2 million.

When this year's annual tobacco auction opens March 21, about 300,000 pounds of the leaf will be available.

"That's the lowest on record since they began keeping records in 1866," said Kate Wagner, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

With so little product to sell this year, Wagner said, plans were revised last week, and this year's auction will be contained to one warehouse -- Farmers' Warehouse in Hughesville, Charles County. A second warehouse, also in Hughesville, decided not to participate. The auction dates to the late 1930s, and agriculture officials can't remember it ever being limited to one site.

As of last month, 854 farmers, representing 7.6 million pounds of tobacco, had signed up for the buyout. Wagner said that constitutes 83 percent of the eligible farmers and about 92 percent of the tobacco grown in Maryland.

Like Hance, the tobacco growers who have not quit farming are switching to new work.

Christine Bergmark, executive director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, says beef cows and goats graze on fields where tobacco once reigned. Tobacco fields have been converted to corn mazes as part of the new movement to boost agriculture tourism, and horses are taking over the barns where stalks of tobacco were hung to air cure over the winter.

The commission is a nonprofit, quasi-governmental body established by the General Assembly to help stabilize the region's agricultural economy as farmers converted from tobacco to alternative crops or other agricultural enterprises.

Bergmark said a grower with a farm outside of Newburg, Charles County, was able to match his tobacco income by opening a greenhouse to grow bedding plants and converting some acreage to a pick-your-own strawberry operation.

She said the commission hopes to establish a slaughterhouse or processing plant to make it easier for farmers to make the switch to livestock.

Meanwhile, some farmers are trying their hand at flowers.

"In other parts of the country, farmers can make $19,000 an acre by growing flowers for bouquets," said Bergmark. "That could be as profitable as tobacco."

She said a survey completed last year showed that a majority of the farmers were transitioning from tobacco to traditional grain crops -- soybeans, wheat and corn, along with hay.

But cost-effective production of grain depends upon large acreage, and because tobacco was so labor intensive, most farms were fairly small.

The residential development of Southern Maryland is making farmland scarce and expensive, thus it is more difficult for farmers to find large tracts to rent.

Bergmark said the commission issues grants ranging from $10,000 to $40,000 to help farmers make the switch from growing tobacco.

Applications for this year's grants must be received by the commission by March 31.

For information or to receive an application, contact at 301-274-1922 or visit its the commission Web site at http:--www.

Crop insurance

Time is running out for farmers to sign up for federally subsidized crop insurance.

The deadline is Wednesday for policies on 12 crops, including oats, forage seeding, corn for grain, sweet corn, processing beans, grain sorghum, green peas, fresh market tomatoes and Maryland-type tobacco.

"Crop insurance is one of the most effective ways to manage risk on the farm and keep your eye on the bottom line," said state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley.

For more information, contact local U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency offices or Mark Powell at the state Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5770.

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