As tobacco buyout winds down, former growers learn to adapt

( Emily Barnes/The Enterprise / ) - Steve Walter in between rows of flowers he grows in Hughesville on what had been a tobacco farm. He also grows sweet corn, okra, green peppers, watermelon, tomatoes and pumpkins. The farm has been owned by his family since the 1920s.

The decade-long tobacco buyout program from the state has allowed some Southern Maryland farmers to switch to different crops or retire from farming. Some others — a handful in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties — hold on, raising a few acres of tobacco, even though the local tobacco auction has been gone for six years.

Maryland farmers who agreed to the buyout’s terms, which included giving up tobacco production while remaining in agricultural production, were paid from a multibillion-dollar restitution fund from six major tobacco product manufacturers to settle lawsuits from the attorneys general of 46 states, including Maryland. The buyout was offered as a way to stop production of tobacco for health and other reasons.

Tobacco production in 1992 accounted for two-thirds of the total value of all agricultural commodities produced in the region. The leaf provided a mainstay for more than 900 growers until the buyout shifted the culture and economics of a 300-year-old tradition, according to the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, which was given the task of organizing the buyout locally. It remains in business, promoting farms and new or alternative farming methods and avenues.

A total of 877 farmers took the buyout, about 86 percent of those who were eligible. They were paid $1 a pound based on their average production from 1996, 1997 and 1998.

“Sooner or later, we were going to be put out of the tobacco business,” because of economics and other factors, farmer Steve Walter said. He used some of the buyout money he to expand his produce business into raising bedding plants in greenhouses on his Hughesville farm. So far, the move has worked out for him, Walter said.

About 75 percent of the farmers took the buyout in the first year it was offered, in 2001, and received the last of 10 payments last year, Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Earl F. “Buddy” Hance said. Farmers could sign on over a five-year period, although the vast majority did so during the first or second year.

The commission has helped many farmers make a transition into other types of farming, including growing produce and flowers or opening their farms to visitors through agro-tourism, and is working to promote other aspects of farming.

“People choose to do different things with their finances,” Christine Bergmark, executive director of the commission, said of the money farmers received for taking the tobacco buyout.

At the time the buyout was administered, the average age of farmers who signed on was about 60. Many were preparing to retire within 10 years anyway, so the buyout made perfect sense, Hance said. Farms with younger operators tended to swithc to another crop or a different type of agriculture, he said, adding that many of them have been successful moving into agro-tourism, produce and other endeavors.

Many came from a long history of family farming, Hance said, and “they want to see that continue in the future.”

That ideal of preserving farmland, coupled with the decline in the housing market over the past few years, has, at least for now, precluded mass sell-offs of farms in Southern Maryland, he said.

Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s have had large population booms in the past decade, and the new residents have brought some challenges to farmers. Some do not appreciate the early hours that farmers work or the dust and pesticides that come from neighboring farms, he said. However, “they do create opportunity” in the form of agro-tourism, which has been successful at several farms in each county, Hance said.

Robert Anderson of Clements opted not to take the tobacco buyout. Even though he does not begrudge those who did, the buyout was an affront to Southern Maryland’s heritage, he said. For that reason, he has continued to farm several acres of tobacco each year.

One day last month, a crew of workers hired by Anderson labored harvesting the tobacco, which includes cutting it, spearing it on long wooden stakes and hanging clumps of leaves to cure in the rafters of one of three large tobacco barns on his farm.

He said people frequently stop at his farm and ask to take pictures of the work or request a leaf as a souvenir.

Anderson said he has farmed tobacco for 55 years on a nearby uncle’s farm and later on his own. He now grows burley tobacco, a different variety from the famous Type 32 that once blanketed Southern Maryland and still provokes interest from some niche markets and European tobacco products. There are dozens of types of tobacco that have distinct aromas and burn at different rates, making some better for cigars and others better for cigarettes.

In 1982, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s set records for the most pounds of tobacco harvested, at least since 1973, according to data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. St. Mary’s farmers harvested nearly 12 million, Charles tallied almost 9 million and Calvert recorded 7 million pounds. In 2004, the last recorded harvest of Type 32 tobacco in Southern Maryland, all of Southern Maryland harvested about 1.5 million pounds.

Anderson said he has a contract with Philip Morris, a cigarette manufacturer, and delivers his crop from six acres to a processing plant in Pennsylvania. Not many farmers grow tobacco locally anymore, he said.

“The Amish and Mennonites, they still raise it,” he said. As for the few non-Amish or non-Mennonites who still farm tobacco, Anderson said, “Everybody, I guess, has their own reason.”

The yield has been good — about 3,000 pounds each of the last two years, where 2,000 pounds would have been a good year in the crop’s heyday.

Officials and farmers said that trying to answer the question of whether the buyout was a success would be difficult. Looking at the broader perspective, most said, the tobacco industry already was declining, and the money from the buyout offered many farmers a chance to start anew.

Recently, the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission has worked to begin a regional slaughterhouse, although it has run into challenges from local ordinances and regulations.

“We’re not there yet,” Bergmark said, adding that farmers must take animals hours away to be slaughtered, a cost-prohibitive venture. Other emerging markets in Southern Maryland include wine, pick-your-own berries, alpaca farms and corn mazes.

The commission also is setting up a program called FarmLink that helps connect farmers who want to lease land with those who have land available and are working toward a forum in which young farmers can connect with potential mentors or discuss techniques and other farming information.

“It’s not my grandfather’s agriculture. It’s not my father’s agriculture. And in 40 years, it will not be my agriculture. It’s always changing,” Hance said.

 
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