Earl Griffith put in a burdensome day's work loading tobacco Monday. So content was he, wrapping up 12 months of toil, that he'd stop from time to time in the sunshine and break into song.

Today, the grind of tobacco farming in Maryland stopped briefly for the start of the eight-week auction that makes it all worth--or not worth--while.

Griffith, who with his son and father farms 60 acres of tobacco in Anne Arundel County, joined his colleagues to watch the dusty start of the Upper Marlboro auction at 8 a.m. and the one at Wayson's Corner at 10. By lunch time the farmers were heading back to the fields to work on next year's crop.

But they weren't singing anymore.

The traditional auctioneer's chant at the eight big warehouses scattered around the countryside outside Washington was as lively as ever, but the message was gloomy. "These prices are bad," confided auctioneer Bob Cage.

After a decade on the upswing, including a 40-cent-a-pound increase two years ago that left farmers whooping happily, prices took a dive of 10 to 20 cents today, to an average of about $1.65 a pound. Applied to an expected crop of 35 million pounds of slow-burning Maryland No. 32, it's a nasty bite.

Farmers hope the low opening prices will rebound in the next few days. Said one, "I've seen boats sink before, too. Eventually they resurface."

But history hints that prices established on opening auction day usually stick until the final few weeks, then generally drop slightly.

So after auctioneer Cage and his band of harried buyers had swept past the stacked crops this morning, disappointed farmers had the same two choices their brethren have faced forever: Sell, or hold on and hope the price goes up. They did some of both. Griffith, with 12,000 pounds on the block, scratched his head and took the money. He has 90,000 pounds more to go before the auction ends, so "if it goes up I'll still have something here to sell."

Edward Moreland, who has farmed tobacco for 45 years around West River, angrily folded his sale tickets and refused to part with any of the 32 stacks he had on the floor. He'll put his tobacco back up later, he said. Meantime, he vented his wrath.

"Cigarettes went up twice last year," Moreland said. "Everything I bought went up. I owe more money than anyone in here. I wanted to sell but I can't at these prices. I'm mad and discouraged. I hope everyone will fold their tickets. This is the best tobacco crop we've had in years. I think they're being unfair."

The size and quality of this year's crop is undisputed, and that's part of the problem. "They had such a good crop in Kentucky," said Cage, who auctioned tobacco there last week. "They sold 800 million pounds; that could be affecting the demand here."

And competition is now global. "They're growing air-cured tobacco similar to Maryland 32 in Italy and Korea," said Roland Darcey, president of the Prince George's County Farm Bureau. "We're just like the car manufacturers, fighting Datsun and Toyota." Added Darcey, "To be truthful, we've been enjoying a good market. No other farm product has had a steady, 10-year ride up. But it can't go on forever. When anything's going good, the farmer is his own worst enemy. We go at it and overproduce."

In Maryland, where tobacco growers have rejected federal allotments since 1965, farmers can grow any amount they want. Most are happy to limit crop size and thus limit massive labor costs and requirements for curing-barn space. A 60-acre tobacco farm such as Griffith's is a big one. He augments it with 350 to 500 acres of grain, but tobacco remains "the money crop."

Air-cured Maryland 32 is the paper-thin tobacco that keeps a cigarette burning. It's mixed with rougher Kentucky burley and flue-cured tobaccos from southern states to make U.S. cigarettes. The choicest Maryland tobacco is bought by the Swiss, who make an all-Maryland cigarette called, unsurprisingly, Maryland.

Buyers for European manufacturers were at the warehouses this morning, lending a cosmopolitan touch to the earthy and aromatic proceedings. Tobacco dust hung in the air, sparkling in shafts of sunlight that streamed down from skylights. "Some days," said a farmer, "it gets so thick you can't see the rafters. You leave here with your throat burning." The farmers are proud of their high-quality product but rue the hours of work that go into its creation. An acre might yield 1,600 pounds of prime Maryland tobacco, worth $2,500 or so, but Griffith says it takes 250 man-hours to work it, "and all hand labor."

He and his men start with a tiny seed no bigger than dust; they raise the seedling and transplant it, cultivate the fields, harvest by hand, and hand-hang the tobacco in breezy barns to cure it. The men spend the winter in little rooms, stripping the leaves from the stalks and piling them into 300-pound stacks, called burdens, that go to market.

No one who has helped hoist a burden onto a tobacco truck needs to ask how it got its name.

But so it is with tobacco work--dirty and sweaty and hard. The worst job, says Griffith, falls to the man who climbs to the top tiers of a curing barn to hang resin-laden tobacco leaves after harvest in August. "There's no breeze up there," said the farmer, "and hot? I mean . . . "

Griffith's father, Eugene, used to take that miserable job for himself. "He used to do it all," Griffith said, "but Pop's 77 now."

So on Monday, Pop Griffith worked in the stripping room while his son and grandson Jeff, 22, did the bull work, hoisting burdens onto trucks. Hard as it was they still found time for a song, at least until the buyers arrived.