BALTIMORE -- A delegation representing Maryland tobacco farmers will be going south next month to see if the state's sputtering tobacco industry will be snuffed out by falling prices.

County commissioners, state legislators and agriculture representatives from Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties will meet with cigarette makers in North Carolina and Virginia to talk about this year's markets and the demand for Maryland tobacco.

"Farmers want to know what the tobacco companies have in mind for Southern Maryland tobacco -- whether there is a need for their tobacco," Charles County Commission President Thomas (Mac) Middleton said about the tobacco raised in Maryland's five southern counties.

The group will tell manufacturers that Maryland tobacco farmers need good prices this year, Middleton said. It could be the last year for many of them, he added.

The delegation will visit R.J. Reynolds in Raleigh, N.C., on Dec. 10 and plans to visit Philip Morris in Richmond later in the month, Middleton said.

"We want to find out if they see a future for Southern Maryland-type tobacco," he said. "If they don't see a future in Maryland tobacco, the farmers have a right to know."

Because of competition from harvesters in the Third World, where labor is cheap, the price of tobacco in the past six years has dropped from about $1.75 a pound to $1.18 a pound, "which is getting near production cost," Charles County Agricultural Administrator David Cooksey said.

The acreage being used for tobacco farming in Maryland is dropping along with the price. Charles County tobacco acreage dropped by one-third this year, Cooksey said. He estimated that there was a similar drop in tobacco acreage throughout Maryland's southern counties.

Maryland produced between 18 million and 20 million pounds of tobacco last year, but production dropped to about 12 million pounds this year, Cooksey said.

Less demand for the variety of tobacco being produced in Maryland and this past summer's drought also have hurt the state's tobacco industry.

There is a greater demand for a tobacco leaf that is thinner than the leaf many Maryland farmers have been producing during the past several years.

Domestic cigarettes contain little Maryland Type 32 tobacco, as the variety is called. Much of the crop goes overseas, especially to the Swiss and Germans, who like Maryland tobacco because it's strong, and burns slowly and evenly.

"Price is the main reason, but there's a lot of little reasons that are part of the problem," according to Cooksey.