Almost 85 percent of tobacco growers in Southern Maryland have agreed to stop raising the crop under the state's five-year-old buyout program, according to a regional study.

The report, prepared by the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, said 854 tobacco farmers in the area had enrolled in the buyout program as of January 2005. That means 7.65 million pounds, or 92 percent, of tobacco eligible for the buyout have been taken out of production.

"We're trying to change a system that has been in place for centuries," said Christine Bergmark, the director of agricultural development for the Tri-County Council. "That posed a big challenge for us."

In a recent presentation to the Calvert Board of County Commissioners, Bergmark explained how the buyout has transformed agriculture and outlined the steps her group is taking to ease the transition.

Under the buyout program, Maryland pays participating farmers, every year for 10 years, a dollar for each pound of tobacco in their average annual yields of 1996, 1997 and 1998. The first checks were distributed in January 2001.

The program is funded by money paid to the state as part of a settlement of litigation with tobacco companies.

Bergmark said the council is trying new approaches -- such as encouraging agri-tourism and launching a marketing campaign for farm products -- to preserve Southern Maryland's agricultural heritage. After the buyout program began, she said, it became clear that farmers needed options to replace tobacco.

"There was a need to diversify, and diversify fast," she said.

One of the main focuses of the Tri-County Council is a marketing campaign -- known as So. Maryland, So Good -- to promote agricultural products and activities. The campaign publishes a directory that listed 168 farms in June 2005; 28 farms applied to be listed last year.

More than 15,000 copies of the directory have been distributed since last year.

Bergmark said there has been a spike in interest in tourism on farms. More than 120 people attended workshops on agri-tourism in February. And on Oct. 8 the group plans to launch Southern Maryland Trails, which will include routes that highlight farm activities and arts experiences.

"This is the next step in our agri-tourism efforts," she said.

Bergmark said state funds were used to help preserve more than 2,138 acres of farmland last year in Southern Maryland, which she defines as Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties. Over the past five years, 14,783 acres -- including 91 farms -- have been placed in programs protecting the land from development.

The goal, she said, is to preserve 30,000 acres within the next five years. "We want to see our farms not just preserved, but vibrant and prosperous," Bergmark said.

"What's the future?" she said. "Nobody has a crystal ball."

But she said that if the community did not act to preserve its rural heritage, that heritage would be lost.

"Once a forest or farm is paved over," Bergmark said, "there's no going back."