The last gasps of a leaf that built empires


The last gasps of a leaf that built empires There's a certain poetry to growing tobacco, a rhythm and lyricism that has risen from Maryland's crumbly soil for centuries. Farmers coax baby tobacco plants into existence, carefully cultivate the plants, cut them by hand, hoist them onto their barns' top rafters to dry them, strip each leaf, determine the grade, delicately tie them together, stack them and, finally, haul the papery, reddish leaves to market.

The plants are manually handled as if each one were a perfect French pastry, and for good reason. The "bewitching vegetable" was the nation's first business has been an economic and cultural powerhouse in Maryland almost since settlers landed on St. Clements Island in 1634.

But historians might one day say that Maryland's cash crop, born of desperation and hope, died in the early 21st century as it closed in on its 400th birthday. In March, at what may well have been the state's last tobacco auction, a stream of mourners stopped in Hughesville to pay their respects and bid a sad farewell to a fickle friend and a way of life.

It all started here, as it might finally end, with a healthy dose of repugnance. In 1604, England's King James I denounced tobacco as a "vile and stinking custome" and discouraged his subjects from imitating the "barbarous and beastly manners of the wilde, Godless and slavish Indians."

But struggling colonists needed something to hang their economy on, and they found it in the green, leafy plant. The Chesapeake Bay offered a network of natural waterways, making it possible to export the crop overseas, where demand was seemingly limitless.

And thus, the crop grew. Money streamed in. The colony prospered. The precious leaves could be used as money or to pay church tithes or taxes. Tobacco helped transform Maryland into the third-largest colony by 1700, and by 1750 the production of the Chesapeake colonies amounted to some 72 million pounds of tobacco a year.

"It must have been an inspiring sight in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to watch from Cape Henry a tobacco convoy file out of Chesapeake Bay between the sandy foreland and Middle Ground Shoal and spread its canvas to the prevailing westerlies," Arthur Pierce Middleton wrote in his 1953 tome Tobacco Coast.

Through the 1700s, 1800s and most of the 1900s, tobacco growers endured gluts, mold scares, rotting, thievery, shipping disasters and price fluctuations. Yet through it all, tobacco consistently formed the economic backbone of Maryland, particularly in the state's southern counties.

The crop has always also had an ugly underside, however. "A slight upturn in the farm price of Maryland tobacco between 1697 and 1702 enabled larger planters to purchase slaves," Robert J. Brugger wrote in his book Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980.

Among the American colonies, only Virginia imported more slaves than Maryland.

A couple hundred years later, in the 1950s, research began to link tobacco to cancer deaths, and it wasn't long after that the fortunes of Maryland tobacco farmers turned.

It has been an achingly slow decline. In the early 1980s, an enthusiast could still enter a tobacco-spitting or a tractor-pull contest at Leonardtown's Pride in Tobacco festival. In 1982, 37 million pounds of tobacco were sold at auction.

But soon after, news accounts began to soberly report the demise of the so-called silver-weed. Year after year, stories would appear around the time of the auction describing vacant, sagging tobacco barns and dejected farmers shaking their heads disgustedly at the prices. An article in The Sun described farmers crying at the 1984 auction.

This year, a piddling 321,000 pounds of tobacco were sold in Hughesville.

The diving trend line has been nudged along by suburban development and the creep of bedroom communities into rural areas where the tobacco used to grow thick and high. In addition, farmers have suffered from labor shortages, political and legal assaults on smoking and a drop in U.S. consumption. Many farmers now have creased faces and work-weary hands - and no one is in line to take their places.

The final blow landed with a government buyout program. With funding from Maryland's share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, the state paid farmers to stop growing the plant, and since 2000, 86 percent of eligible farmers have taken the buyout.

Even so, some refuse to believe the end is nigh. David Conrad, the extension regional tobacco specialist at the University of Maryland, said he expects burley tobacco will replace Type 32, the traditional, air-cured Maryland tobacco. Mennonite and Amish farmers, who are traditionally wary of government handouts, continue to farm the crop, he pointed out.

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