Forty minutes from the headquarters of the nation's official anti-smoking campaign, in a cool dark warehouse laced with the smell of Maryland's "best crop in over 10 years," seven men bid yesterday for 35 rows of mansize, 200-pound piles of tobacco.
When Bernard Doepkins, manager of the Triangle Tobacco Warehouse here, announced the opening price per pound over each pile, the men, representatives of seven large American cigarette manufacturers, tensed for the bidding.
They scrambled to be the first to signal their bids by scratching, yelping or thrusting their fists in the air as Doepkins repeated the bids in a rapid-fire sing-song.
A sale completed, the sales slip for the pile was passed to assistants who, in turn, marked it with the price and the buyer, threw it onto the pile, called a burden, attached it to a stick and stuck it neatly on top.
In less than 90 minutes, the men bought more than 1,000 burdens. The cigarette men had paid a top price of $1.30 per pound during the second day of Maryland's annual eight-week tobacco auction season.
Half of the 200,000 pounds of the light, thin, burley air cured tobacco - unique to Maryland - that were sold yesterday will be shipped to Switzerland, where Swiss cigarettes are blended with as much as 9 percent Maryland tobacco. The other half will be spread through the United States; most American brands contain less than 1 percent of Maryland tobacco.
Tobacco was the No. 1 crop in Maryland for more than 300 years. Some of the 4,000 farmers who grow it now come from nine generations of tobacco workers, and can tell you that Maryland tobacco. The other half will of England precisely for the growing of tobacco.
Maryland tobacco is valuable to American cigarette manufacturers because of its low tar and nicotine content and because it burns slowly and evenly, according to a spokesman for the state department of agriculture.
Although it is less than 5 percent of the total agricultural income of the state, tobacco still is by far the largest crop produced in the five counties of Southern Maryland, including Prince George's. And the people who work with tobacco in Maryland, including the farmers and the employes of the eight tobacco warehouses, are as committed to the industry as if their lives depended on it.
Inched out by a declining availability of land and a dearth of skilled labor, and threatened by the federal government's attack on cigarette smoking, Maryland's tobacco industry is, as one tobacco worker put it, "less than a thimble full of water in a 55 gallon drum" for Maryland's economy and the tobacco industry nationwide.
Although they complain about health warnings and labor and land costs, none of these difficulties deter those farmers who yesterday stood around the warehouse in Wayson's Corner on the Anne Arundel-Prince George's County line.
Louis Boehm, a third-generation farmer with 30 acres, which is considered a large tobacco farm, stood by his 20 burdens along the rear wall of the warehouse, waiting for the small auction crowd to reach him.
"We only raise about 30 million pounds in Maryland," said Boehm, who was wearing a cap with the emblem "Pride in Tobacco."
"Kentucky sells as much in one day as we raise in a whole season. Maryland tobacco used to be 10 cents higher than ever other. Now it's 30 cents lower."
But Boehn said he has no intention of leaving the business, and he discounted "anti-smokers who are against everthing, anti-war, anti-this - they just want to stir up trouble."
Boehn, 5, said he had diabetes and emphysema. "I got emphysema as a kid from cleaning out turkey and chicken coops," Boehn said, coughing. "Well they're not going to outlaw chicken coops."
Other farmers were not as loyal. Robert Catterton, 22, grows tobacco on one acre of his farm and, like many growers has another, full-time job. Catterton, who works as a carpenter foreman, said: "I don't smoke, because I see where it comes from. I see it rotting in the fields. I see the dirt; you don't wash tobacco, you just burn it."
But Catterton opposes the federal anti-smoking campaign, and said, "All the government's going to do is hurt the people who use tobacco by raising prices."
Pamela Barefoot had spent a year interviewing and photographing tobacco people and was now sitting in the warehouse trying to sell them her book, "Mules and Memories."
"I sent (Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph) Califano my book, with a note saying I hope this would have him make more rational decisions. All most people know about cigarettes is that it comes in packets," said Barefoot, who grew up on a tobacco farm in rural North Carolina.
"They don't know what is involved in tobacco, how much a farmer invests in his crop the love and respect he has for the land." CAPTION: Picture 1, Donald Gott of St. Leonard and Guy H. Hall from Prince Frederuck examine Maryland's "best tobacco crop."; Picture 2, Tobacco is loaded onto a truck for shipment after being sold at the auction; Picture 3, Paper tag identifies tobacco purchaser. Photos by Gerlad Martineau - The Washington Post