New uses for tobacco could revive industry in state


March 26, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Imagine a time when tobacco could be used to cure cancer rather than cause it.

Or when it could be used to manufacture items such as shampoo, body lotion, hair conditioner and lipstick.

Or as a source of ethanol to fuel automobiles, or as an ingredient in the production of household cleaners, paint and carpet.

These possibilities are being pursued by researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park under a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program provides about $300,000 a year for five years, and maybe longer, depending on the progress of the research.

It's called the Alternative Uses of Tobacco Project and is aimed at finding ways to keep agriculture a viable industry in Southern Maryland, said Gary V. Hodge, a policy consultant and a co-creator of the project. He also served as executive director of the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, a regional planning and development agency.

"If we can't find something with the [economic impact] of tobacco, we will not be able to maintain an agriculture industry in Southern Maryland," he said. "That's my verdict."

If successful, the project could pump new life into a dying industry that has been a big part of Maryland's history. For 370 years, tobacco has been more than a crop in Southern Maryland - it has been a way of life.

The first European settlers in the region saw the potential of the crop shortly after their ships - the Ark and the Dove - landed at St. Clements Island in 1634. Among other things, tobacco was used as currency in Colonial days.

Hodge played a key role in the drafting of the legislation that led to the state's tobacco buyout program in 2000. The buyout has just about eliminated tobacco farming in the state. Only about 300,000 pounds of leaf were sold at last week's auction in Hughesville, Charles County.

By comparison, tobacco injected an inflation-adjusted $96.5 million into the regional economy in 1982, when 38 million pounds of leaf were auctioned.

While the buyout program all but eliminated the production of tobacco for use in cigarettes, Hodge said, a provision in the legislation left the door open for farmers to grow tobacco for beneficial uses.

Might these new beneficial uses make tobacco the money crop it once was?

"Another two years might prove that," Hodge said.

Researchers are seeking to determine the potential market for the protein extracted from tobacco plants, he said.

"If we are successful, we will begin talking to farmers in a couple of years to see if they are interested in producing tobacco for beneficial uses," Hodge said.

The research is already capturing the attention of some farmers.

"It is something I'm watching," said Steve Walter, who grew tobacco for 25 years at his farm near Hughesville before taking the buyout in 2000. "If it looks like we can make some money growing tobacco again, I'm interested."

Robert Kratochvil, an extension agent with the University of Maryland, is managing the growing of tobacco for the project at the university's Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Upper Marlboro, formerly the Tobacco Experimental Farm.

He said growing tobacco for beneficial purposes would be less labor-intensive, and the yield would be much greater.

"We are looking at 100,000 plants per acre compared to about 6,000 plants per acre" for tobacco used in cigarettes. That's because the plants would not have to be planted in distinct rows.

"And I can safely say that we can get two harvests a year and maybe three," he added, compared with a single yearly harvest of tobacco grown for use in smoking products.

Hodge said the project has picked up a couple of new research partners in the past six months: North Carolina State University and Virginia Tech.

"These are states that grow a lot more tobacco than we do," Hodge said. "We welcome their participation."

Neil A. Belson, a member of the project team, is president of Pharmacognetics Inc., a biotechnology company.

"My vision is to establish a refinery that would use tobacco as its feed stock," he said.

The facility would extract protein from tobacco, which could be used in the production of drugs and commercial products.

"What would be easier than farmers making the transition and going back to growing a crop they have grown all their lives?" Hodge said.

Tobacco for beneficial uses "has the potential of having the economic impact on Southern Maryland that tobacco for cigarettes once had," Kratochvil said. "Tobacco could still be around for a long time."

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