The Maryland Tobacco Growers Association, an agricultural cooperative that has had more than 25,000 members in five counties over its 98-year history, plans to shut down at the end of the year.
For Margaret Phipps, the group's demise is the latest sign of a hard truth: The era of tobacco in Maryland is coming to an end.
"It's so sad to see our main crop just go by the wayside," said Phipps, 71, of Owings, a former tobacco farmer who now grows other crops, including hay and corn.
But Phipps was pleased to receive a notice in June announcing that the cooperative would distribute its assets to any members with rebate certificates. It was the first profit distribution since 1978, said R. Calvert Steuart, a director of the cooperative.
Phipps scrounged around for her certificates and sent in several hundred dollars' worth. It had been so long since she heard from the cooperative that she thought the certificates would never be redeemed.
"It was a pleasant surprise to hear that we would be getting some money," she said.
At its peak, the Maryland Tobacco Growers Association was one of the largest agriculture cooperatives in the Washington area. It was founded in 1906 to help farmers in Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties sell tobacco.
The association pooled its members' tobacco and packed the crop into barrels called hogsheads to be sold in Baltimore. But as hogshead markets gave way to loose-leaf tobacco sales during the middle of the century, the association's mission changed.
The cooperative opened five farm supply stores throughout the region to sell goods to farmers at low prices, Steuart said.
"That was the place where people who farmed could get most anything they needed," Phipps said.
By the early 1980s, the small shops could no longer compete against chain stores.
"Have you heard of Wal-Mart? Kmart?" Steuart said. "That kind of commercial sales place is in the process of driving most farmer cooperatives out of business."
It took almost two decades for the cooperative to sell off its stores and raise enough money to pay back its members this year. Steuart said the directors did not want to dissolve the association unless they paid back all members.
"When is the last time that you have heard of a corporation that is in debt, that ceases operations and pays all of its members 100 cents on the dollar?" he said. "We are very proud of the way we are winding things down here."
Steuart said about 360 members have sent in their rebate certificates, and all will be paid by the end of the year. Members have until Nov. 1 to send in claims.
For many of the cooperative's directors, its end is somewhat anticlimactic. "This farmer cooperative has been out of business so long that the regrets have faded to nothing," Steuart said.
Many farmers in Maryland, though, have mixed feelings about the demise of tobacco in the area. Although tobacco sales began declining in the 1970s, the state's buyout program accelerated the end of tobacco in the region.
More than 85 percent of Maryland tobacco farmers have taken the buyout since 2001, agreeing to stop farming the crop in exchange for cash payments. Fewer than 150 farmers in Maryland grow tobacco today.
Franklin A. Robinson, 72, of Charles County took the buyout. He grew tobacco on his 3,000-acre farm but now raises other crops, such as string beans, corn and sunflowers.
"I haven't made enough to get out of debt yet, so I have to keep farming," Robinson said.
Robinson, a director of the cooperative, said he is nostalgic for the days of tobacco and the Maryland Tobacco Growers Association. As a child, he went to the cooperative's annual meeting at Chesapeake Beach.
"I wasn't too much interested in the annual meeting at that time," he said. "I was more interested in the amusements and the picnic lunches that we would take along."
Robinson said he tries to be unemotional as he presides over the dissolution of a group that played a central role during his childhood and career as a farmer.
"That's life," he said. "Things change. We just try to go along with it and make the best decisions that we can."