Maryland farmers and state agricultural and economic officials are planning a trade mission to Europe early next year to promote Southern Maryland's oldest crop, tobacco.

Although many European cigarettes already use blends that include Maryland tobacco, the delegation will seek to increase sales by promoting the state leaf as "the preferred, premium tobacco that smokes and tastes better," said Robert L. Walker, administrative assistant to Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Wayne A. Cawley.

They also intend to make the point that the product is easy to import because of the accessibility of Baltimore's harbor to European markets, he said.

"We want this to be a credible business marketing venture," said state Sen. Bernie Fowler, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel, Calvert and St. Mary's counties and is chairman of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Commission.

Fowler said stiff competition from lower-priced foreign tobaccos and Italian and Brazilian strains of "imitation Maryland Type 32 tobacco" -- a variety grown in Southern Maryland -- has made the trade mission "imperative."

"We want to send people who are familiar with the plight of the Maryland tobacco farmer and to make sure this is not a vacation junket," he said.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture is using $83,000 from the state Department of Economic and Community Development to fund the mission.

About a dozen representatives of the state will go, said Tri-County Council Executive Director Gary Hodge.

"It's my understanding that Maryland has never embarked on such a mission before, although it's been an frequent strategy in other tobacco-growing states like Virginia and North Carolina for years," Hodge said.

"We want to encourage our traditional customers and then look for new markets to tap into," Walker said.

While the tobacco industry has been under siege in recent decades as antismoking campaigns have gathered strength, Hodge and Fowler say Southern Maryland's 24,000 acres of tobacco fields have been particularly hard hit during the past two years by a combination of poor weather and the strong dollar abroad.

"As long as the dollar is strong, nobody can afford our product," said Oscar Grimes, a Davidsonville, Md., tobacco farmer.

The 1982 crop sold in 1983 brought $1.80 to $1.84 a pound, Grimes said. "The next year, the price dropped to just a $1. Obviously, nobody was pleased with that."

Until 1982, growers in Southern Maryland once produced as much as 50 million pounds of tobacco a year, but last year only 28 million pounds were sold, said W. Terp Garrett, agricultural extension agent for Anne Arundel County.

This year's yield is expected to drop to 26 million pounds, he said.

"Essentially, the industry in Maryland has gone through a steady decline over the last two decades, despite periodic up surges," said Anne Schanche, economic development specialist with the Tri-County Council.

Factors behind that decline include drought conditions in the field, the public's concern about the health hazards of smoking and a growing tendency of domestic cigarette manufacturers to buy and use cheaper, foreign-grown tobaccos, Schanche said.

Hodge said that in recent years Italy has developed a strain of flue-cured Maryland-type tobacco that has eroded foreign markets "because it is available for half the price. . . . If other countries can save this kind of money they will, and it becomes critical that we promote our product."

The Maryland delegation will visit Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and West Germany "to show the flag and firm up existing markets," Hodge said. " . . . We want them to know that our product is a unique air-cured leaf."

In Switzerland, where a "Maryland"-brand cigarette with at least 50 percent Maryland-grown tobacco is on the market, officials say the reception is likely to be a warm one.

"Switzerland is one of our best European customers. . . . We just want to remind them of the product face-to-face," Fowler said.

If the European mission brings results, Hodge said, Maryland officials will consider a summer trip to Asia to open new markets there. When a Taiwanese delegation visited the state last month to buy soybeans, delegates were briefed on Maryland tobacco from state agricultural officials.

"We found out they buy 60 percent of their tobacco from the U.S., so there is definitely the opportunity to open new markets," Hodge said.