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For Farmers, Clock Is Ticking On Tobacco

Former tobacco farmers have just three years to turn their land into profitable ventures before subsidies end. In this 2006 photo, S.L. Brady tends a tobacco crop in Owings.
Former tobacco farmers have just three years to turn their land into profitable ventures before subsidies end. In this 2006 photo, S.L. Brady tends a tobacco crop in Owings. (Photos By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

In 2010, some area farmers will receive their last Maryland Tobacco Buyout check.

The 558 former tobacco farms enrolled in the first year of the program will have to survive solely on a new line of work, whether it be an alternative crop or agritourism venture.

The challenge is to make those farms profitable now rather than wait, said Christine Bergmark, executive director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.

On Saturday the commission will host a forum to examine the question, "What's going to happen in 2010?" The organization hopes to attract farmers, business owners, residents and community leaders to evaluate current programs and brainstorm about additional measures that could help sustain farms. Attendees have been invited from the five counties served by the commission: Calvert, Charles, St. Mary's, Anne Arundel and Prince George's .

"Our concern is that at that point, farmers will be tempted to sell their land," she said of the end of buyout payments, "and that's what we're hoping won't happen."

The tobacco buyout is a voluntary program that uses money from the national tobacco litigation settlement to pay Maryland farmers who agreed to stop growing tobacco and to keep their land in agricultural production.

About 854 tobacco farmers participated in the state tobacco buyout program, which allowed them to enroll from 2000 to 2005. Under the program, farmers received payments based on their average production before they signed up for the buyout.

Organizers of the forum will produce a report based on the discussions, along with recommendations for the next steps farmers can take. Some possible future initiatives include helping farmers find others to lease and farm their land, building more local partnerships and addressing regulatory roadblocks that farmers face in marketing their products.

The agricultural commission surveyed the buyout participants in 2006 about their current farming practices. About 544 of the participants responded to the survey.

Since the buyout, about 70 percent of respondents said they had maintained or expanded their farm operations. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they are growing traditional crops, such as hay and vegetables, or raising livestock. About 12 percent said they are growing alternative crops, such as wine grapes, greenhouse bedding plants, nursery plants and cut flowers. This category also includes agritourism.

The commission already sponsors several land preservation efforts, farm viability grants, grape-growing grants to start vineyards or wineries, farmers markets and the "So. Maryland, So Good" initiative.

The forum will be at the Center for Business and Industry on the College of Southern Maryland's LaPlata campus. It begins at 9 a.m., ends at 1 p.m. and includes lunch.

Anyone is welcome, but those planning to attend are encouraged to RSVP by calling 301-274-1922 or by e-mailing info@somarylandsogood.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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