Once-lively tobacco auction goes way of dying industry

March 23, 2006|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

HUGHESVILLE -- Tradition here means the rich, sweet smell of dried tobacco. It means cold, dusty air and bales upon bales of coppery leaves that rustle when handled. It means bantering with old friends and listening to the mesmerizing, rhythmic chant of an auctioneer, as silver-tongued as a square-dance caller.

But these familiar sights and smells of the tobacco auction, a beloved ritual in this Southern Maryland town since the 1930s, are going the way of country stores and empty rural roads. This week's auction, which is set to end today, might be the last in the state.

From the standpoint of traditionalists, the statistics were grim yesterday at Farmers Tobacco Auction Warehouses: three buyers, about 50 farmers and only a little more than 300,000 pounds of tobacco, a paltry load compared to years past.

They began arriving early in the morning, when it was still cold enough to see your breath. First the farmers and their hands, then the buyers and their cronies and finally, a cluster of spectators, eager to witness a piece of history unfold in the gigantic wood-and-tin building.

About 9 a.m., the auctioneer began calling out prices in a nearly incomprehensible rush of numbers and sounds. Trailed by onlookers, the buyers moved up and down the rows, breaking off brittle pieces of tobacco and inspecting the hue. With a nod, wink or wave of the hand, prices sank and rose - but mostly sank.

Prices ranged from a low of 50 cents a pound to a high of $1.80, numbers that had most farmers shaking their heads.

They murmured in the background, decrying the small bids as well as the passing of a way of life.

"Regardless of what you feel about tobacco as a commodity, it's our culture, and it's evaporating before our eyes," said Bob Schaller, a College of Southern Maryland economics professor, who brought his son along for a lesson about supply and demand.

"My dad died of emphysema. He smoked for 50 years, and it's the worst thing in the world. But this is what these guys do. It's what they know," he said.

"From a social standpoint, it's the right thing to do," said Schaller, who has always lived in Leonardtown, in the heart of tobacco country. "But it's hard when it hits you at home in your own backyard."

Chuck Easler, the smooth-voiced auctioneer, took off his cap and ran his hands through his hair as he tried to capture what has made the auction such a remarkable institution.

"It was like Christmas, New Year's and your birthday all rolled in one," he said. "It's the smell. It's the adrenaline. ... It's what you've been around, and I hate to see it go. A lot of us would work for nothing if we could just keep doing it, we love it so."

In the 1950s, more than 40 million pounds of tobacco were sold at auctions in Southern Maryland. The opening of the auction, the culmination of a year's work, was a cause for celebration. Farmers brought their families, there were parties and dances, and money flowed. As recently as 2001, 8 million pounds were sold in a month.

But tobacco's reign in these parts has been ushered out in large part by a government buyout. With funding from Maryland's share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, the state paid farmers to stop growing the plant. Since the program was instituted in 2000, 83 percent of eligible farmers have taken the buyout.

Some farmers continue to grow the crop, rejecting the intrusion of the government along with a payment that many consider too low. But they will likely end up selling directly to the tobacco companies, a practice already under way. This contract arrangement has some benefits for farmers because it eliminates uncertainty and establishes a base price for the crop.

But it also means the end of all this: the camaraderie, the competition, the rich aroma of hundreds of bales of tobacco sitting in shafts of sunlight.

Gerald Wood's family has lived in the county for 300 years; his father and grandfather raised tobacco, and he has been coming to the auction since he was 5 years old.

"I hate to see it go out, but if it don't make no money, it ain't no use to grow it," said Wood, 63. He was sitting on a bale of his tobacco and had a faraway look in his eyes. "It's a lost art."

Twenty years ago, he could sell tobacco for $2 a pound, he said. But as prices fell, so did his investment. Last year, he grew 22 acres of tobacco; this year it is 16; and next year, he's probably backing out altogether.

"I'm going to draw Social Security," he said.

Joe Nye, a 30-year-old farmer from Davidsonville, brought almost 4,000 pounds of tobacco to the auction this year. He's going to continue growing the crop, but he'll sell directly to the tobacco companies, he said. He already had a contract with Phillip Morris this year for some of his tobacco.

He's sorry to see the auction disappear, even though there had been a lot more agony than ecstasy in the ritual in recent years. He looked forlorn as the day wore on.

His leaves were a nice red color and he spent a lot of time rearranging and fluffing them for the buyers. But he only got $1.50 a pound, a disappointing price.

The price dropped, he said, just before the buyers got to his bales.

Raymond Guy, 57, works at the auction house, but he wasn't wasting a lot of time with sentimentality.

"Times have changed," he said. "You have to change with the times.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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