Were it not for Francis M. Gasperich, Maryland Agriculture Secretary Y.D. Hance and aide Dick Carter would have spent yesterday morning at their desks in Annapolis, James Johnson would have been inspecting eggs in Parole and Donald Mackall would have been working in the state print shop at the Tawes Office Building.
Were it not for Francis M. Gasperich, the Maryland Tobacco Authority Warehouse in Cheltenham in southern Prince George's County would not see a leaf of tobacco this year.
That is because Francis M. Gasperich is the only tobacco grower in Maryland who sells his crop packed in barrels called hogsheads rather than in the open baskets preferred by all other Maryland tobacco growers.
A Maryland law, admittedly an old law, requires that all tobacco sold in hogsheads must go through an elaborate leaf inspection ritual, and that is why the five state employees gathered at the Tobacco Authority warehouse yesterday. It is believed to be the last hogshead market in the country and, because it is used for that purpose so rarely, the state and county use the warehouse to store other property, such as voting machines and discarded official records.
Fracis M. Gasperich, 48, and his 90-year-old father, Francis G., built the 10 hogsheads, each of which measures approximately five feet by three feet, and pack into them the harvest from the five acres they have in tobacco.
Gasperich, who lives on a 160-acre farm in Craownsville, Anne Arundel County, is a tree surgeon by profession who has been selling tobacco in hogsheads off and on since 1947, his father since 1933., The current Gasperich crop was harvested in 1974 and hung in the family barn until the senior partner stripped the leaves from the stalks and bunched them this spring.
If the Gasperich way of selling tobacco is an anachronism, the ritual opening of the casks and inspection of the tobacco itself occurs in a warehouse that by all logic should not exist.
The large tobacco warehouse was completed in 1971 at a cost of nearly $1 million, replacing the old Baltimore hogshead market torn down in the renewal of the inner harbor area. But the old market's replacement was uncertain for so long and the labor costs of handling hogsheads became so expensive, according to Hance, that the growers committed themselves instead to the warehouses in Southern Maryland. There the crop is sold in long rows of open stacks that sit on baskets.
All of it, that is, except that belonging to Francis M. Gasperich.
Gasperich believes that the grower has more control over his crop sales when the tobacco is packed in hogsheads. If the grower doesn't like the price offered, the state is obligated by law to store the hogsheads for him indefinitely - up to four years once for Gasperich., The state is not obligated to store tobacco displayed in the open basket method.
The ritual, last performed at the warehouse in 1973, followed a set procedure and was performed in one small corner of the building. The full cask was weighed first. Then, the three state employees detailed for the job removed the barrel (except its bottom) from the tobacco, which sat like a compressed golden brown cylinder.
James Johnson, the egg inspector with 14 years' experience in the hogshead market, poked an upright "breaker bar" into the tobacco cake at six points, one more than the law requires.
At each point, Bernie Doepkens, of the Maryland Tobacco Growers Association, extracted a bunch of leaves. One bunch per casket would be marked and sealed, for later inspection by prospective buyers. The empty barrel was then weighed to determine the net weight of the tobacco, and the cake placed back within the cask. The ritual was repeated for each barrel.
I'd rated this very good," said Doepkens of the Gasperich crop. "It's handled well. It's uniform. It should bring just about the top price." $1.20 per pound this year. The buyers representing the tobacco companies are scheduled to inspect the Gasperich crop Monday.
For Gasperich and the state of Maryland, this year threatened to be the last for the hogshead market. A State Senate bill, which died in committee, would have repealed the entire law affecting the handling of hogsheads and transferred the one and one-half employees of the semi-independent state Tobacco Authority to the Agriculture Department.
Hance, who wore a gold tobacco tie clip yesterday, said he opposed the measure. "There is a reduction in average of tobacco in Southern Maryland," he said. "As production drops,the buyerswill be less and less inter- [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in sending crews up here" for the two-month basket markets.
Then, predicted Hance. "There'll be a demand again for the hogshead market."