After 300 years of tobacco as Southern Maryland's cash crop, could the new coin of the realm be the fruit of the vine?

Some St. Mary's County commissioners think so, and they spent nearly an hour of Monday's meeting inside the State House of 1676 at St. Mary's City talking about it. Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) even went so far as to suggest the county could provide seed money.

"This is the beginning," said McKay (R), in period clothing for the first-ever meeting of the commissioners at the replica State House constructed in 1934 for the 300th anniversary of the Maryland colony's founding.

The unusual setting was part of the days-long Maryland Day celebration, marking the date of March 25, 1634, when the first Maryland colonists landed at St. Clement's Island. But far from play-acting, the commissioners meant business.

Backlit by candles and flanked by the U.S. and Maryland flags, they heard from a St. Mary's College of Maryland senior who surveyed 202 farmers, from an economics professor who oversaw her project and from two local grape growers touting their yield per acre compared with tobacco crops.

Southern Maryland farmers have been looking at alternative crops for at least two decades as tobacco has gone into decline and, more recently, as an overwhelming majority have taken state buyouts to stop growing the crop. Most have switched to the traditional field crops of corn, soybeans and hay.

Steve Purvins, a general contractor who has been growing grapes on his Bushwood farm since 1999, said he grosses $900 per ton for grapes, compared with the $170 he receives for hay. Purvins said he sells his grapes to two wineries, both in central Maryland.

Amy L. Forbes, 21, a St. Mary's College student who conducted the survey for her required senior project, said most farmers expressed little interest in growing grapes. But, she said, interest seemed to rise with higher income and education levels.

A descendant of Leonard Calvert, the first governor of Maryland, Forbes said her father formerly raised tobacco and other crops on 1,000 ancestral acres straddling the Charles and Prince George's county line. She said she conducted the survey with help from P. Joan Poor, her economics professor.

She mailed her questionnaire in January to the 202 St. Mary's tobacco farmers who are participating in the state buyout. Of the 87 who replied, 58 responded to questions seeking their level of interest in growing table or wine grapes.

"Some just said they were retiring," Poor said. "Others drew a line through it." On a scale of one to five, 37 registered the lowest response and 13 a four or a five. If there were a local winery to sell to, 15 indicated significant interest while 30 checked the least-interested category.

The biggest drawback, Purvins and others said, is the initial investment for grapes, $4,000 an acre the first year and no profit until the fifth, compared with $763 for tobacco yielding net revenue of up to $2,745 the same year. Purvins said he has been able to make a profit sooner by using a grape harvesting machine.

"Do you think farmers would buy into a cooperative effort driven by some government funding?" McKay asked.

"It's quite possible," Purvins said. "Because it's a new crop here, some people are hesitant to commit, but that would help." Also, he said, not having to truck the crop so far would "absolutely" stimulate local interest.

"Amy," McKay told Forbes, "you had no idea you were going to create such a commotion."

The commissioners also heard from Joe Dick, who grows grapes on three acres at his St. Michael's Manor bed-and-breakfast in Scotland. He sells half his crop to the Linganore Winery in Mount Airy, a fourth to home winemakers, and keeps the rest for himself.

After the presentation, the commissioners adjourned upstairs to taste wines made by Dick and two other county residents but not for commercial purposes.

During the afternoon, the commissioners discussed property tax relief for seniors in the 12 months starting July 1 and lowering the county's income tax, now among the highest in the state, the following fiscal year. McKay said approval of the state's budget must precede any action on the proposals.

The county soon will hold public hearings on its $133 million proposed budget for fiscal 2004. The amount is 4.7 percent more than the current year's budget, but McKay said no tax increases or cutbacks are necessary, based on projected revenue.

Thomas A. Mattingly, left, and other St. Mary's County commissioners dressed in 17th-century garb meet in the replica State House of 1676.