A Harvest of Change
Saturday, February 24, 2007
David Cox's callused palms and stubby fingers have turned black. The air is cold, and the floor of the cinder-block-walled room is covered with flakes of tobacco leaves that crunch when he walks about. There he is, sitting in the corner, stripping leaves off stalks of tobacco.
It is a monotonous chore, stripping tobacco, stalk by stalk -- 210,000 of them this season, the Southern Maryland farmer estimated.
It also is a rare sight. The Maryland tobacco buyout seven years ago nearly wiped out the state's tobacco production. It has declined so sharply that for the first March since 1939, there will be no tobacco auction in Hughesville. There are simply not enough people producing the plant to attract buyers.
Yet there are about 100 holdouts who, like Cox, are still raising tobacco in Southern Maryland. Unlike Cox, the vast majority are Amish and did not participate in the state buyout because they do not believe in accepting government subsidies.
With the market for Maryland tobacco all but gone, the remaining growers have contracted with Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, to raise a different crop: burley tobacco, a plant common in Kentucky and Tennessee but new to Maryland. Compared with Maryland tobacco, burley leaves are thicker and have a lighter color, and their stalks are about a foot taller.
Next week, farmers such as Cox are sending the season's last bales of burley to a buying station in New Holland, Pa. -- in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the heart of the nation's Amish population. From there, the tobacco will be transported to Philip Morris's cigarette factories.
"You've got the history of tobacco right here," Cox, 47, said, showing off his wooden tobacco barn in Prince Frederick that dates back more than 150 years. Cox said he did not take the state buyout because he reasoned that he could make more money by continuing to grow tobacco.
For Cox, tobacco is a way of life, as it has been for at least five generations of Coxes before him.
There was a time when tobacco farming defined Southern Maryland -- its culture, its economy, its landscape. The tobacco auction was held in Hughesville every March. Farmers would unload bundles of leaves from their pickups, buyers would feel them for texture and moisture, and auctioneers would scout for the winks and nods that sealed the deal.
But Maryland's production has declined remarkably. In 1946, about 46 million pounds of tobacco were sold at the Hughesville auction, according to statistics kept by Dave Conrad, a tobacco specialist at the University of Maryland. By 1983, that figure dropped to 37 million. By 1999, one year before the state buyout, just 9 million. Last year, a mere 300,000 pounds.
The few cigarette- and cigarmakers that bought Maryland tobacco, most of them European, are looking elsewhere, mainly Brazil, to satisfy their demand.
"It's a tremendous transition for Southern Maryland," said Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, a fourth-generation farmer and deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.