LOTHIAN, MD. -- Henry Jones worked down the rows of tobacco plants Friday morning for the last time this year -- and maybe forever.
He chopped the plants at the ground and, with a helper and his son Jimmy, loaded them onto a trailer and hauled them to the barns to cure. It was a time for hard work and some hard reflection, too, for the fields Jones farmed in southern Anne Arundel County since 1933 may never be planted with tobacco again.
"I like farming and everything, but it's getting rough," said Jones, who is 69. "I'm old. I'm broke up. I can't drive the tractor. I don't know what to say about the tobacco. It's fading out. Lord knows what I'm going to do."
Jones is talking like a lot of tobacco farmers in the county and in the rest of Maryland. Prices keep falling, and the cheap labor on which tobacco depends is in short supply. Fields that once grew tobacco are now growing corn for hog and chicken feed and, increasingly, hay for horses. Old farmers are retiring, and their children are not stepping forward to take their places.
The county's tobacco farmers are casting about for new sources of income such as boarding horses. Or they are turning away from farming in favor of driving construction equipment, doing carpentry or taking a few hours' break each day to drive school buses.
Others, such as fourth-generation tobacco farmer William Tucker of Lothian, have turned to real estate.
"Houses," Tucker said, "that seems to be the main crop in Anne Arundel County these days. The only difference is that it's permanent. It uses up the land forever."
According to 1982 census figures, 60 percent of the county's farm families received income from nonfarming jobs. Today, some extension agents say, that figure is about 80 percent.
If tobacco is in its twilight, then it had a long time in the sun. Tobacco has been a major crop in Maryland since the first recorded fields were planted in 1632. Last year, Maryland was the country's seventh-largest tobacco-producing state.
But the value of Maryland's tobacco crop has dropped in recent years -- from $57.7 million in 1981 to $32 million last year. By comparison, Maryland's most important farm product, broiler chickens, increased in value from $327 million to $426 million during the same period.
However, tobacco is still the biggest cash crop in Anne Arundel, where no broiler chickens are raised. Last year, the county produced more than 2.5 million pounds of tobacco, which sold for about $3.3 million at tobacco auctions in March. Also in 1986, county farmers produced 673,000 bushels of corn worth about $1.5 million and 131,000 bushels of soybeans worth about $660,000.
But the amount of farmland devoted to tobacco has declined dramatically in Anne Arundel in the last five years, as it has throughout Maryland. There were 3,000 acres of tobacco planted in Anne Arundel in 1983, 2,700 acres in 1984, 2,300 in 1985 and about 2,000 in 1986. This year, county extention agents estimate that the figure was near 1,500.
At the same time, the prices Maryland tobacco has fetched have slumped from $1.75 a pound in 1981 to $1.18 last year. Hot, dry "Now people just don't want to get their hands dirty."
-- Oscar Grimes
weather during the summer has meant that much of the area's tobacco crop is of relatively low quality and unlikely to command high prices.
"I have no reason to believe the market is going to make a tremendous rebound," said county extention agent Turp Garrett. "Even with a modest price increase, I think you are going to see a decline in tobacco next year, too."
Many farmers said a shortage of cheap labor for the labor-intensive work of tobacco farming is causing problems too. "At one time, you could pick up labor anywhere," said Oscar Grimes, a 63-year-old Davidsonville farmer who grew six acres of tobacco this summer instead of his usual 12 to 14. "Now people just don't want to get their hands dirty."
Tobacco has resisted mechanization more than any other crop grown in the area. The seeds are hand-planted in carefully protected beds late in the winter, and transplanted to the fields in spring. In the summer, the flower buds must be removed by hand. In the late summer and fall, the plants must be cut down by hand and strung up in barns by hand. After several weeks left to cure and dry, leaves must be stripped off, graded and bundled by hand.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that growing and harvesting an acre of tobacco take an average of 230 man-hours, compared with the two to three man-hours for an acre of corn. On the other hand, an acre of good tobacco can be worth $3,000 while an acre of grain corn may fetch less than $200.
"Tobacco has been our money crop," said Grimes, who also raises corn, hay, wheat, the straw left over from the wheat, hay, and hogs and cattle. "The other things are to supplement you through the year . . . . If we don't get a decent market next March, I'm afraid that a lot of people who cut way back this year are going to cut right out. I've heard several people saying that no matter what, they are going to do it. It's just not profitable enough now to have to put up with all the worry and the work that's in it."
Grimes, president of the county Farm Bureau, said farmers are also convinced that tobacco is, increasingly, a harvest of the past. "This no-smoking scare, this cigarette scare, has taken its toll," said Grimes, who, like most tobacco farmers interviewed, does not smoke. "I'm sure the big tobacco companies see the writing on the wall."
In recent years, the consumption of cigarettes in the United States has fallen from 1 to 2 percent annually.
"That's a concern about the future for most everybody in the industry," said Claude G. McKee, superintendent of the University of Maryland's Tobacco Experimental Farm in Upper Marlboro, which provides tobacco seed and advice to farmers around the state. "Consumption is going down -- not rapidly -- but you aren't dealing with a commodity whose market is expanding anymore. It's a whole different ball game. In the short term, things like weather conditions and prices are important concerns. In the long term, I think it's got to be things like a smoke-free society."
Five years ago, William Tucker was planting 50 acres of tobacco. This year, he cut back to 10 acres and started selling real estate. "The margin of profit was squeezed slimmer and slimmer and smaller and smaller," he said.
"I just figured that every year tobacco was bringing less, that it was time to start looking elsewhere.
"Real estate is interesting," he said, "but I do miss the farm. But you got to be able to turn a profit. That's all."
As he cut tobacco on Friday, Henry Jones bemoaned the loss of farmland -- from 63,159 acres in Anne Arundel in 1969, to fewer than 40,000 today. "All people are doing now is building houses, stores and everything," he said. "They don't think about the farm. But when the farmer is gone, everybody is gone and when all our land is gone, we're dead. Because we live off the land. We don't live off the roads."
However, Jones' son Jimmy, 25, has gone to work for the Prince George's County School Board as a night plant supervisor, worrying about things like broken boilers. He helps his father when the need arises, he said, but he will never plant tobacco on his own.
"You work all year but you really can't make a living in it," Jimmy Jones said. "It's not for me. I've done enough of it to last a lifetime. You work all year, and it doesn't take five minutes to sell your whole crop."