State Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D) wrote the governor's office earlier this month with a breakthrough proposition: With the state's help, Southern Maryland farmers could continue to grow tobacco that would actually produce health benefits.

Dyson is trying to get Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to soften the anti-tobacco stance that has led him to refuse to contemplate state aid from tobacco litigation settlement money to assist farmers continuing to grow tobacco.

The senator told Glendening he should consider research currently being conducted at the Center for Agricultural Biotechnology at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in College Park.

Experiments are underway on the feasibility of developing genetically modified tobacco that would produce heat-stable enzymes for use in the production of ethanol fuels. Since ethanol fuels are cleaner burning, the altered tobacco would be a health enhancer rather than a health risk, Dyson's letter said.

"While I know that you are thoroughly opposed to the growing of tobacco that will be converted into an unhealthy product, I am sure that once you review the CAB experiments," Dyson wrote, "you will see that this is not a bad crop, just a misunderstood one that can enhance our environment, health field and job market."

Dyson and other area officials are trying to find ways for tobacco farmers to keep growing what he called "Maryland's oldest crop" in coming years as demand from cigarette manufacturers here and abroad is expected to decline in the wake of litigation against the tobacco companies.

Some farmers will be fearful of switching to entirely new alternative crops, Dyson said, and the bioengineered tobacco may provide them another option.

Dyson has spoken frequently on the need to protect agriculture in Southern Maryland. In a statement last month, Dyson lamented that "the fight to keep our country roots alive is becoming more and more difficult" as farmers age and development continues to claim formerly rural land.

He cited Maryland Agriculture Department statistics that show farm acreage dropped 8,603 acres in St. Mary's County from 1987 to 1997, 7,801 acres in Calvert and 11,727 acres in Charles. Taken together, that is just shy of 44 square miles taken out of agricultural production for some other use.

Dyson suggested where most of the land is going. "Instead of barns and cozy farmhouses, instead of cows and horses and sheep, we're seeing more and more houses, strip malls, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and asphalt roads to accommodate the added populace. . . . It's getting awfully crowded down here in Southern Maryland."

St. Mary's Pledges Funds for Museum

St. Mary's County commissioners last week pledged $2 million in county funds and services toward the proposed Patuxent River Naval Air Museum and visitors center.

That move means the project has commitments for $4 million of its estimated $11 million cost. Project director Gary V. Hodge has said $2 million already has been pledged by the Maryland Department of Transportation for land. Anticipated funding includes $4 million in state funds for construction and $3 million to be sought in a private fund-raising effort.

The museum proposal, a product of a committee that has been working off and on since 1997, may get its first detailed architectural planning and design work next year. Backers plan to seek funding for that in the Maryland General Assembly session that opens next month.

Historic St. Mary's Loses Director

Karin B. Stanford, a stalwart of the Historic St. Mary's City staff for nearly two decades, revealed this week that she is leaving for a new position at a Florida museum.

Stanford, who has been director of visitor services and public affairs for Historic St. Mary's City, has accepted a position at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. She will work there on education programs and historic sites administration.

Historic St. Mary's City is the site of Maryland's first capital and is recognized as the birthplace of religious toleration in America. The Historic St. Mary's City Commission oversees the archaeology and living museum on the site of the colony founded in 1634.

Calvert Earns Financial Kudos in Audit

Calvert County received a clean bill of financial health last month--squeaky clean.

For the first time in the county's history, according to a statement issued by Sherrod Sturrock of the county's finance office, the annual audit of the county's finances required by state law turned up no accounting issues.

In the jargon of the auditors, "there were no management letter comments." Such comments are used to point out areas of concern about the way the county handles its finances.

One of the three credit rating agencies, Fitch IBCA, responded to the audit by affirming Calvert's AA general obligation bond rating. In a statement that reads in part like a page from the ongoing debate over development in the county, Fitch said the county's "financial position is very strong, especially considering intense growth demands. . . . Strong growth control ordinances should help keep demands manageable."