Like generations before him, Bob Scrivener grew up planning his days around the life cycle of tobacco: the arduous spring planting, the summer harvest in sweltering heat, the selling of the crop at the annual auction the following year.
Now, as one of the many Southern Maryland farmers who have given up growing tobacco, Scrivener finds himself tied to the rhythms of a very different crop -- one that not only is harvested in the cold of winter, but that buyers sometimes prefer to harvest themselves.
"We give them the option," Scrivener said. "Some people bring their own saw. They're ready to go."
Scrivener grows Christmas trees -- white pines and Douglas firs to be exact -- on his Prince Frederick farm. He became a Christmas tree farmer in 1995, but this is the first year that the trees were big enough to sell.
The overwhelming majority of Southern Maryland farmers have stopped growing tobacco. Seventy-one percent of eligible growers -- 712 farmers -- have given up the crop in return for state funds, according to Christine Bergmark, director of agricultural development for the Tri-County Council, the organization that oversees the buyout program.
Scrivener wasn't eligible for the buyout, because growers had to be raising tobacco in 1998, which was after he gave it up. But he is very much part of the farming community's effort to develop alternative crops.
Bergmark said some farmers are growing flowers and nursery products. Others are raising livestock. And still others are raising grain, corn, watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins and berries.
But Scrivener is the only one growing Christmas trees, according to Bergmark.
"I always say that farming is like any other profession. It's a very personal choice what one goes into," she said.
Scrivener labored with that choice for more than a decade. During that time, he tried to figure out what to do to replace tobacco as the market for the crop declined. He first gave it up in 1989. To replace the income, he added on to his house so that his wife, Carol Ann, could open a day-care facility.
He raised some cattle and grew some hay, partly so he could retain his agricultural tax status.
But it was difficult to make much money off a small cattle farm, so Scrivener went back to raising tobacco for a couple of more years. He quickly soured on it again.
"The market was so erratic," he said. "Maryland tobacco was primarily bought by foreign buyers.
"When they got their quota . . . they stopped bidding on it."
Giving up tobacco again wasn't easy for Scrivener. His farm has been in the family since 1903 when his great-grandfather bought it; Scrivener has held on to 58 acres of the original 188-acre tract.
Even though Scrivener worked for the telephone company after he got married, he felt compelled to keep growing what had long been the area's primary crop.
"Tobacco -- it gets in your blood," Scrivener said. "When we got married in '65, most everybody who lived on a family farm raised some tobacco . . . . They just felt like they had to keep their hands in tobacco. And through the years it just started dropping out."
He still rhapsodizes about what he calls "a beautiful crop when everything goes right," and the "sense of pride raising the perfect tobacco."
"I hate to see it gone," he said. "It's such a tradition."
Scrivener said he never used tobacco himself, but he raises some of the usual defenses that growers offer when asked how they feel about the health hazards of smoking. Tobacco, Scrivener said, is "like everything else. You use it in excess, it's bad for you." He has "never been fully convinced that it is the tobacco itself that caused the cancer," but rather the chemicals used to raise it or ingredients the cigarette companies "put in it."
He added that tobacco and those who grow it make an easy target for politicians. "This governor we had, he made you feel like a criminal if you raised tobacco," he said, referring to Parris N. Glendening (D).
He got the idea to grow Christmas trees from a farmer friend of his who was raising them in Anne Arundel County. The drought hurt the development of seedlings he planted this year, but Scrivener still has about 2,400 trees growing on about two acres. The major work in growing evergreens is keeping watch on wild grass, which will overrun the seedlings.
Scrivener is partial to the Douglas fir, because its branches, he said, are stiffer than those of the white pine, allowing buyers to hang heavier ornaments.
Last year, members of his family were allowed to cut down trees for their homes. But he didn't feel that enough had reached the optimal height to sell to the public.
"A lot of people want a tree seven to eight foot tall," Scrivener said.
Although Scrivener had been at the mercy of the buyers all those years at the tobacco auction, he didn't take it out on his new customers when he finally had a chance to set the price -- he charges $30 a tree.
"Several people have told me I priced them too low," he said, but he didn't want to take advantage of people around the holidays.
"It seems like Christmas is a time when everybody gouges you," Scrivener said.
So far his biggest payday came last Sunday, when he sold 44 trees on a day when the farm was covered with snow.
He probably won't get rich, but certainly no one has made Scrivener feel like a criminal for growing Christmas trees.
"It's definitely a friendlier thing, for sure. And it gives you some pride," he said.
"Some people take some pride picking out the perfect tree. When you see a satisfied customer, it's a good feeling."