They all came together last week in the cavernous tobacco warehouses and packing plants of Upper Marlboro, a few miles from the garden apartments and developments of Prince George's County and a short drive from downtown Washington.
They are the farmers and sharecroppers who grow tobacco in this cultural twilight zone in the suburbs; the migrant workers and auctioneers who follow the tobacco markets through the South; the big money buyers who signal their bids with clenched fists and represent huge foreign and domestic companies that buy the Southern Maryland tobacco harvest of more than 30 million pounds.
A converted old school bus, its long chassis piled high with stacks of bunched tobacco leaves, sat parked under a billboard advertising "Marlboro Country." Its contents would wind up on the floor of the nearby Marlboro Tobacco Market, already full with 34 long rows of stacked tobacco sitting on baskets with wheels.
The auction is a movable feast of two parallel lines separated by a tobacco row. On one side, auctioneer Beany Sparks, up from Reidsville, N.C., chanted the prices, followed by a man who noted the high bid and buyer. Across the row, several bidders moved along with him.
By 9 a.m. on the market's first day. Beany Sparks had finished the first long row, with many of the waist high stacks bringing a good $1.20 a pound. For a while, the large room was filled with the sweet smell of tobacco. After a while, the aroma was buried under a tobacco dust storm, so much dust from the movement and touching of leaves it could make you sick.
At the side of the auction warehouse, far from the high-rolling money men. Ernest Zirzanal, 48, used a long metal hook to pull a cloth-covered basket of sold tobacco to a waiting truck.
"It keep you out of trouble," was the way he described his lifelong work. "It keep you out of jail."
"Tell Mr. Carter we ain't raising peanuts, but we'd like to have a little money off this tobacco," said Homer Bohannon, who drove the truck from the warehouse to the nearby Gieske & Niemann packing plant for a basic $2.30 an hour the minimum wage. "I been in the tobacco business for 25 years and I'm poorer than a sonovabitch. There's no money in the manual end of it."
Bohannon came from Tennessee in 1950 and made the annual trek during the marketing season for years, finally moving to Marlboro year round. There are others who continue to follow the tobacco from place to place, but they are diminishing in number.
"We're hiring a lot of local people now," said Robert Denny, Gieske & Niemann's 52-year-old plant manager. "We're rapidly reaching a point where we won't have to bring any people in,"
Gieske recently reduced its migrant labor force -- from 300 down to fewer than 30 -- by packing tobacco "green" rather than recuring (wetting and slowly drying) it as in the past. The trend has spread to other packing plants as well.
As a result, some of the migrants' quarters have been demolished and others are vacant -- small, spare single rooms with bare cinder-block walls.
Gieske's remaining migrant work force is accommodated in a way reminiscent of the Old South. The seven white workers live in a pleasant, white-frame building. It has air-conditioning, a large living room with a color television set, communal kitchen, bathroom facilities and individual bedrooms.
The black migrants live without air conditioning or other amenities in the gray cinder-block buildings. Their communal toilet and shower facility is in another cinder-block building behind the packing plant.
The whites pay $5 a week rent, which includes maid service. The blacks pay $3 a week and make their own beds. John Fraser, the 59-year-old night watchman who is black, said the housing segregation is by "personal choice."
"It's just the design that's been followed over the years," said plant manager Denny. "We're not committed to furnish anything. Years ago, you had (discrimination). Now, we have a black foreman. We're an equal opportunity employer."
The opportunities for all workers, however, have been further reduced by the introduction two years ago of the "dump packer," a Rube Goldberg contraption that eats the tobacco leaves at one end and spits out a packed load at the other end.
Before the dump packer, Gieske & Niemann required enough coopers to build 300 hogshead barrels a day, and migrant labor to pack them by hand. Today, said Denny, "The coopers are gone. I've got but two, and they go around to these folk festivals."
while the auctioned tobacco was being driven to packing plants last week from markets in Marlboro, Hughesville, Waldorf, La Plata and Wayson's Corner, the new season of growth was beginning.
White cheesecloth blankets covering tobacco seed pods could be seen throughout Southern Maryland. When the seed pods become six-inch high stalks, they will be transplanted, more often than not by farmers' children, to fields that have been protected by grass cover since last year's crop was hand-cut by machetes.
The matured stalks will be spiked onto wooden sticks and will be hung from rafters inside barns to die slowly --known as "air curing" -- in the fall before another stripping season. And so the cycle would continue, as it has for centuries in Southern Maryland.
To succeed, the cycle requires the right climate and some 230 manhours of labor per acre, a process that, short of the packing plant, continues to defy mechanization.
Still, asserted Claude G. McKee, the University of Maryland's tobacco specialist, "Tobacco Road is almost out of the picture" in this area. McKee doubles as a writer of brochures and pamphlets for the Maryland Tobacco Improvement Foundation, an organization largely funded by the Swiss, who each year buy the best of the Maryland crop.
Reliable figures on the number and kind of tobacco farmers here are hard to come by, but there appear to be three distinct groups: the sharecroppers, who generally receive a half to two-thirds of the crop proceeds in return for their labor and equipment; part-time farmers, who have other full-time jobs and grow a small cash crop on the side, and a dwindling number of aging full-time farmers who own their land and plant tobacco along with other crops.
Any way you do it, you won't get rich.
In an effort at least to make a living, tobacco farmers behind on their leaf stripping because of the dry winter were making the most of "down" weather the week before market. Tobacco can be taken down in the barns and stripped only when it is moist, or it crumples.
One day before market, James Garner, 51, was at work in his stripping room underneath the tobacco barn with a radio to ward off the loneliness and flourescent lighting "to bring out the color factors."
"The humidity's 100 per cent this morning," said Garner, a fourth generation tobacco farmer in Southern Prince George's. "The tobacco is right soft now."
While Garner devotes full time to the farm, his wife works as a registered nurse. Last year, Garner produced about 1,200 pounds on each of the 14 acres planted in tobacco, and grossed about $1.00 per pound.
"My son would also like to work a small crop of tobacco if he'd have the time," Garner said, a John Deere cap perched on his head.
But his son commutes to work for a Bethesda engineering farm. "I haven't encouraged him to stay here," Garner said. "It seems like the farmer has to put in more hours than most people to make a living. You can't raise enough to make a living by yourself, harvesting and stripping tobacco."
A few miles away, Bernard (Bud) Johnson continues at age 67 actively to work the family farm. Johnson does all his own stripping, about 8,000 pounds a year with a high yield of about 1,800 pounds for each of the five acres he keeps in tobacco.
He hires help now and then, but it's still basically a one-man operation where "you can do what you want to do . . . I love it . . . I just like to see things grow."
Johnson steered an old pickup truck over winding country roads to a barn he shares with several other men. While it rained heavily outside, the men removed the unstripped tobacco stalks from the rafters.
Among the men was John Brooks, 39, night supervisor of a county juvenile detention facility in Cheltenham. "I love tobacco," he said. "I just wish I could make a livelihood out of it."
With tobacco growing increasingly becoming a sideline for the farmers of Southern Maryland, they all agree the prospects of another 40-million-pound crop, considered "normal" two decades ago, are not good. Nonetheless, tobacco as a Southern Maryland industry and a way of life endures.