"Welcome Tobacco Growers," reads the aging sign outside the Edelen No. 1 warehouse in Upper Marlboro. Inside the huge 38-year-old building, growers and buyers meet to perform an annual rite of spring in Maryland - the tobacco auction.
The Maryland tobacco auction is a time for convival conversion and hard bargaining, where the bidding is friendly but furious. More than a million pounds of Maryland-grown tobacco are sold every day in eight different warehouses throughout the state during an eight-week auction period that ends today.
This year's total crop is expected to top 28 million pounds, which according the Maryland Tobacco Authority is a "good, normal crop."
Edelin No. 1 is one of a network of four warehouses in the Upper Marlboro area. It is empty most of the year but during the eight weeks of the auction it is filled with hundreds of neatly arranged stacks of Southern Maryland tobacco leaves.
In the back room, two women tabulate the previous day's sales and prepare the tickets for that day's auction. The ticket is a sheet with the name of the grower, the weight of each stack of tobacco (the average is 200 pounds) and the price paid per pound. Meanwhile, two veterans discuss the progress of the auction. It's been a bad week for the farmers, with the average prices hovering around $1.15 a pound. "I don't see why Phillip Morris and Reynolds don't hold this market up." says one. "They don't want to," said the other.
Out on the floor, graders from the tobacco division of the Department of Agriculture inspect each bundle and assign it a rating according to type of leaf (tips, heavy, thin, nondescript), quality (choice, good and color (from tan to green).
A bundle graded BIF (heavy leaf, choice, cherry red) would likely fetch a good price, maybe as high as $1.25 a pound, while one market S3G (scraps, low, green) would not merit serious consideration.
Seven major tobacco companies have teams of two buyers, each going from warehouse to warehouse to buy the best leaf for the least money. There are five American cigarette manufacturers represented (R.J. Reynolds, American, Winstead, Free State and J.P. Taylor), two buyers for German and Swiss companies and some independent buyers.
For the Maryland tobacco farmer, the yearly auction marks the end of one season and the beginning of another. By the time the tobacco is in and sold today it's time to put in seedlings for the next year's crop. According to Archie Duvall, who has been working in the warehouse for 40 years, "On a good we'll sell tobacco for 30 to 40 farmers."
Roland Rawlings has been growing and selling tobacco for most of his 60 years. It's hard and financially unpredictable life, but for Rawlings it's the only he knows. "I've been on the farm all my life and that's all I like to do," he says. "I like to fool with tobacco."
Rawling hasn't been getting more than $1 a pound for his crop this auction and, since he is a sharecropper, he must divide profits with his land owner. He can expect to get $4,500 for his tobacco this year and almost all of that will be used to pay for the cost of planting a new crop. "One year you make some and one year you don't. I don't clear see nothing. It cost me that much just to put in. The farmers are starving," says Rawlings, who sharecrops on a farm in Largo, across from the Capital Center.
But the farmers have a friend in "beany" Sparks.Sparks is the auctioneer and the true star of the show. Originally from Ruffin, N.C., Sparks has been calling auction for 15 years, following the tobacco markets throughout the South and East. He stays as long as there is tobacco to be sold, sometimes as long as 18 weeks.
Sparks admits that it helps to have a big mouth to be a good auctioneer. "I decide to make a living with my mouth, since I run it so much anyway," he says, flashing a grin from beneath his waxed handlebar mustache.
A good auctioneer must maintain a good relationship with both the buyer and the farmer. Although he is paid by the warehouse for his services, Sparks really works for the farmer, trying to get as much as he can for their labor. "I do all the bargaining for the farmer," he says. "But the farmer is at mercy of a few companies.
As auction time nears, Sparks hudles with the buyers beneath a "Have Your Tried a Lucky Lately" sign. Archie Duvall, who acts as the price setter, looks at the grading tag on the first bundle and says "ten" ($1.10 a pound). Then Sparks takes over, chanting in a sing-song voice, "tenwhogivemetennineninenineninegivemeeighteighteightsoldtoAmerican." It's over in the blink of an eye and then on to the next stack. For the next half-hour, Sparks leads a procession of buyers down the rows of tobacco, his mouth in high gear, leaves flying as the buyers yank out samples from the middle of the stack for a closer look.
Demand for the Maryland tobacco weakened yesterday as the season neared completion. According to the Federal State Market News Service, most grade averages sustained losses of chiefly $1 to $3 per hundred pounds. Composition of marketings varied little from the day before. Seconds accounted for 18 percent of the medium volume, thin-crop, 26 percent, heavy-crop, 38 percent, and tips, 12 percents.
Gross sales Tuesday totaled 707.974 pounds and averaged $103.33 per hundred, down $3.25 from Monday's return. Season sales climbed to 33.714,-688 pounds for $114.82: and companies have acquired 28,645,778 pounds for $115.69 per hundred.