Five years after leaving the crop he spent his entire life growing, fourth-generation tobacco farmer Steven Walter stepped into an Upper Marlboro tobacco field on a recent sun-baked afternoon and cocked his head in puzzlement. Everything looked terribly wrong.
Where there should have been neatly ordered rows, thick clumps of tobacco knotted into an out-of-control, knee-high jungle. The leaves, which farmers grow until the end of summer, had already been harvested. And what were those glowing blobs of neon blue that coated the ground?
"It looks real strange to a tobacco farmer," said Walter, 44, of Hughesville, as he squatted and touched a tobacco plant for the first time since 2000. "But you can definitely still tell that it's tobacco."
The strange crop growing in this University of Maryland field is part of an initiative that researchers believe will transform tobacco, which has hastened the deaths of millions, into a plant with beneficial uses that could enhance shampoos, treat kidney dialysis patients or even fight certain types of cancer.
"It's the ultimate irony," said Gary V. Hodge, a creator of the project and former executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, a regional planning group. "But it might be just the thing that ultimately keeps tobacco alive."
The federally funded initiative, known as the Alternative Uses of Tobacco Project, is seen by some farmers as the only remaining opportunity to revive a tobacco industry that was once the economic and cultural backbone of Southern Maryland.
Six years ago, the Maryland General Assembly approved a first-in-the-nation tobacco buyout. About 85 percent of the state's 1,000 or so tobacco farmers -- Walter among them -- promised to stop growing tobacco on their property in exchange for cash payouts.
But there was an exception: The land could be used to grow tobacco for non-smoking "alternative" uses.
Now the U-Md. scientists are racing to complete their research before the farmers, many of them senior citizens, die and the land is sold.
"All we need is a way for farmers to reengage in tobacco for a totally different purpose than its historical purpose of smoking," Hodge said.
Although most of the tobacco fields have vanished, the crop's 400-year grip on Southern Maryland remains strong. Charles County still crowns a Queen Nicotina every year. The flag of neighboring Calvert County bears a bright-green tobacco leaf. And anti-smoking newcomers to the area are quickly reminded that tobacco fields were once as common as housing developments.
"It was the money crop," said Pat Wathen, 69, president of the Charles County Farm Bureau.
For more than a century, his family's La Plata farm grew up to 15 acres of tobacco. But since he took the buyout and retired from farming, the fields have been used only for personal use.
Other farmers have turned to different crops. Walter transformed his tobacco operation into a 1,000-acre field filled with corn, soybeans and wheat.
"It's kind of a shame that whole way of life is dying out," Wathen said. "It was definitely hard, labor-intensive work in hot, hot weather. But you miss certain things."
In many ways, the experimental tobacco grown by U-Md. researchers at the Upper Marlboro field bears little resemblance to the crop that Wathen remembers. Traditionally, tobacco is grown in neatly ordered rows of about 6,000 plants an acre and harvested yearly; the researchers hope to grow up to 100,000 plants an acre, harvested four times a year. Instead of placing each plant into the ground individually, they spray the seeds on the dirt as part of a neon blue substance that glows in the sun.
When Walter grew tobacco, he spaced the plants out and tended every harvested leaf with extraordinary care, hanging each one in a barn until it was air-cured to perfection. But the scientists don't care about leaf quality or taste. They care only about one thing: proteins.
"Proteins are used in everything from cosmetics to medicines," said Neil A. Belson, a principal co-investigator on the project. "If we can grow these proteins cheaply in plants instead of creating them in multimillion-dollar reactors, there would be a real demand."
Belson said researchers are at least two years away from teaching Southern Maryland farmers how to grow nontraditional tobacco. For now, they are still experimenting with ways to extract the proteins from the plant.
Inside the project's processing facility, a building at the College Park campus that once produced ice cream, researchers removed heaps of tobacco from a walk-in refrigerator and demonstrated the extraction process to Walter and several visitors.
"Ready to go!" Y. Martin Lo, an associate professor of food bioprocess engineering, yelled to two assistants. They began dumping verdant tobacco leaves onto a conveyor belt.
A green mist filled the air as the tobacco toppled into a machine that pulverized the leaf. The entire room smelled of freshly cut grass.
The researchers then fed the pulp into a device that began to squeeze the protein-filled juice into a bucket. An excited Belson peered into the container.
"You're seeing the future of tobacco!" Belson exclaimed as he turned to Walter.
The farmer didn't seem quite convinced. "I think we've still got to wait and see how this works," he said.
Although farmers in Maryland are waiting to see if the U-Md. project pans out, biotechnology experts say tobacco is one of the plants most likely to produce beneficial drugs in the near future. Since 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has received 15 permit applications from companies seeking to grow genetically modified tobacco to produce pharmaceuticals. Some companies have already conducted trials on anthrax vaccines and anti-cavity drugs grown in the plant.
"There is no doubt in my mind, absolutely no doubt in my mind, that in the not-too-distant future -- certainly our lifetimes -- we will see biomedical compounds derived from tobacco plants," said Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture of the D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization.
But even proponents concede that it will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars before some of the tobacco-based drugs reach the public. Many may never make it to market.
Giddings cautioned that the genetically engineered tobacco would not require nearly as many growers as did the traditional crop.
As Walters stood and gazed at the research field, with a traditional red-roofed tobacco barn aging in the distance, he said most younger farmers would want to try the nontraditional tobacco -- if it is profitable.
"Nostalgia is all well and good for newcomers and politicians," he said. "But farmers are only going to grow tobacco again if we can make money on it."