Turning Over a New Leaf

Farmer Steven Walter of Hughesville, left, and Gary Hodge look at the progress of tobacco plants grown by University of Maryland researchers.
Farmer Steven Walter of Hughesville, left, and Gary Hodge look at the progress of tobacco plants grown by University of Maryland researchers. (Photos By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

Five years after leaving the crop he spent his entire life growing, fourth-generation tobacco farmer Steven Walter stepped into an Upper Marlboro tobacco field on a recent sun-baked afternoon and cocked his head in puzzlement. Everything looked terribly wrong.

Where there should have been neatly ordered rows, thick clumps of tobacco knotted into an out-of-control, knee-high jungle. The leaves, which farmers grow until the end of summer, had already been harvested. And what were those glowing blobs of neon blue that coated the ground?

"It looks real strange to a tobacco farmer," said Walter, 44, of Hughesville, as he squatted and touched a tobacco plant for the first time since 2000. "But you can definitely still tell that it's tobacco."

The strange crop growing in this University of Maryland field is part of an initiative that researchers believe will transform tobacco, which has hastened the deaths of millions, into a plant with beneficial uses that could enhance shampoos, treat kidney dialysis patients or even fight certain types of cancer.

"It's the ultimate irony," said Gary V. Hodge, a creator of the project and former executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, a regional planning group. "But it might be just the thing that ultimately keeps tobacco alive."

The federally funded initiative, known as the Alternative Uses of Tobacco Project, is seen by some farmers as the only remaining opportunity to revive a tobacco industry that was once the economic and cultural backbone of Southern Maryland.

Six years ago, the Maryland General Assembly approved a first-in-the-nation tobacco buyout. About 85 percent of the state's 1,000 or so tobacco farmers -- Walter among them -- promised to stop growing tobacco on their property in exchange for cash payouts.

But there was an exception: The land could be used to grow tobacco for non-smoking "alternative" uses.

Now the U-Md. scientists are racing to complete their research before the farmers, many of them senior citizens, die and the land is sold.

"All we need is a way for farmers to reengage in tobacco for a totally different purpose than its historical purpose of smoking," Hodge said.

Although most of the tobacco fields have vanished, the crop's 400-year grip on Southern Maryland remains strong. Charles County still crowns a Queen Nicotina every year. The flag of neighboring Calvert County bears a bright-green tobacco leaf. And anti-smoking newcomers to the area are quickly reminded that tobacco fields were once as common as housing developments.

"It was the money crop," said Pat Wathen, 69, president of the Charles County Farm Bureau.

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