The Maryland tobacco auction ended today, one week late and just as desultorily as it had begun March 15.
Prices, low throughout the selling session, hit rock bottom, occasionally less than $1 per pound, at the giant warehouses in Charles, St. Mary's, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. Farmers were moving the dregs of last year's crop to a whittled-down crew of buyers. Many of the big buyers had already filled their orders.
An extra week was added onto the auction when it became apparent the bumper tobacco crop would not be sold out by the scheduled end of the eight-week regular auction. By the close of business Wednesday 38.1 million pounds of slow-burning Maryland No. 32 cigarette tobacco had been sold for $58.2 million.
Concern that there would be a surplus of tobacco unwanted by the major buyers apparently was unwarranted. "I don't think there is a surplus to amount to anything," said Bernard Doepkens, manager of Triangle Warehouse in Wayson's Corner. "Maybe one-tenth of one per cent of the crop."
The 38.1-million-pound total is very high by recent standards. Last auction, after a good growing year, 33 million pounds was sold. But with the average price of $1.51 down an average of 20 cents or more per pound, farmers wound up this year with about the same amount of money as last, according to Christine Beall of the state Tobacco Authority.
Corn is the No. 1 Maryland crop, while tobacco and soybeans vie annually for the No. 2 spot.
"We had a bumper crop and the price went down," said Beall, adding that the quality of tobacco at this year's auction was not as good as last year's.
Beall said farmers were "very unhappy" about the prices, which they blamed in part on increased production of Maryland 32-type tobacco by Pennsylvania farmers. She said some farmers here "who planted excessive crops may be thinking about cutting back."
But Jeff Griffith, who farms 60 acres of tobacco with his father and grandfather in Lothian, said this year's low price won't induce his family to cut back production. "I don't think there'll be much less grown" in the state, he said.
Ed Allen, a Calvert County farmer and state vice president of the Farm Bureau, said from what he's heard, he expects big tobacco farmers to actually increase production in an effort to offset lower prices. "A lot of them have set corn land aside in the PIK (federal payment-in-kind) program," he said. "They have more time so they're going to increase their tobacco production."
Allen said full-time tobacco farmers have no choice but to keep producing, since most are working small farms not suitable to other crops. Such farmers, said Allen, have to take prices "the same way they take the weather-just hope next year's better."