Southern Maryland farmers received record prices for their crops of burley air cured tobacco at the 1979 annual auction, a traditional 30-day sales forum that was concluded yesterday.
Average prices for the crop, grown mostly in 1978 and sold by farmers at four auction houses over the past eight weeks, were up eight cents a pound from last year.
Although the farmers generally do not believe this 7 percent increase from 1978 covered higher costs, "they were pretty well satisfied this year," commented Archie Duvall of Edelen Brothers Warehouse in Upper Marlboro.
Overall crop quality was estimated as somewhat better than in 1978, which means fewer farmers were offering lower-priced leaves. The farmers, meanwhile, were busy today planting the 1979 crop. Some plants have been in the ground for more than a week and can be seen from the rural roads in Prince George's County. Heavy spring rains have delayed some plainting but farmers interviewed yesterday expressed no serious worries about danger to their crops.
"It's like shooting craps," said Duvall of the annual spring planting ritual. "They might get a seven" he said, which in Maryland tobacco-growing country means a top quality leaf of the kind which fetched $130 a hundred pounds this year from German and Swiss buyers.
Maryland tobacco is favored by some European tobacco manufacturers because of its slow and even burn as well as low nicotine content. Virtually all American cigarettes contain a small amount of the Maryland leaf, as well. The tobacco is sorted by quality and stacked for inspection by representatives of American cigarette firms and foreign buyers.
According to U.S. Department of Argiculture statistics due to be released on Monday, total net to be released on Monday, total net tobacco volume at the four auction centers-Upper Marlboro, Waldorf, La Plata and Hughesville - was 29,761,166 pounds. That is litte change from 29.67 million pounds last year.
Since 1973, the examination 4,000 Maryland farmers who grow tobacco have sold between 29 million pounds and 31 million pounds a year at the annual spring auction, the method by which tobacco has been sold to manufacturers for at least the past 40 years.
Most of the farmers invest all of each year's income into the next crop and many have other jobs.
Growth volume this year, including resales by some farmers seeking to improve their price as the auction progressed, was 34.7 million pounds, also little changed from last year.
Prices set a record, however, at an average of $123.15 per 100 pounds, up more than $8 from $115.09 in 1978, according to USDA spokesman Bill Martin at the Maryland Tobacco Authority warehouse in Cheltenham, in southern Prince George's County.
On the auction's last year yesterday, which began at 9 a.m., volume tailed off to 338,822 pounds overall. At the Edelen warehouse in Upper Marlboro, 35,000 pounds were sold compared to a steady seasonal average of 95,0000 pounds a day.
As usual in recent years, auctioneer "Beany" Sparks from North Carolina was in Upper Marlboro yeasterday for the breathless bargaining by voice in the barn-like hall. It was all over for 1979 by noon except for a few stacks sold after lunch.
USDA's Martin estimated that 20 percent of next year's selling crop al- ready is in the ground and that remaining plants will be started in ten days. Farmers intend to plant tobacco at about the same level as last year and up to 2 million pounds grown in recent years remains in storage as some farmers count on even greater prices in future years.
Although spring rains are not yet a danger for Maryland growers, the situation is different in southern Virginia. There, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau, Excessive rain and flooding imperils crops of green tobacco as well as peanuts.
Although tobacco in Virginia has not yet been harmed, more heavy rain could jeopardize the entire crop, said W.C. Cheatham of the farm bureau.
"The rain made one of the best stands of tobacco in several years this year," he said. "But if it continues, the root systems of the plants won't penetrate far enough into the ground to withstand dry spells." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, From the curing barns of southern Maryland, the tobacco crop, mostly from 1978, has been traveling by truck and finally by skid to the auction floors where tobacco auctioneers like Marshall Cox, left, of Louisville, Ky., sold it for record prices. By Michael F. Parks-The Washington Post