David Cox's callused palms and stubby fingers have turned black. The air is cold, and the floor of the cinder-block-walled room is covered with flakes of tobacco leaves that crunch when he walks about. There he is, sitting in the corner, stripping leaves off stalks of tobacco.
It is a monotonous chore, stripping tobacco, stalk by stalk -- 210,000 of them this season, the Southern Maryland farmer estimated.
It also is a rare sight. The Maryland tobacco buyout seven years ago nearly wiped out the state's tobacco production. It has declined so sharply that for the first March since 1939, there will be no tobacco auction in Hughesville. There are simply not enough people producing the plant to attract buyers.
Yet there are about 100 holdouts who, like Cox, are still raising tobacco in Southern Maryland. Unlike Cox, the vast majority are Amish and did not participate in the state buyout because they do not believe in accepting government subsidies.
With the market for Maryland tobacco all but gone, the remaining growers have contracted with Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, to raise a different crop: burley tobacco, a plant common in Kentucky and Tennessee but new to Maryland. Compared with Maryland tobacco, burley leaves are thicker and have a lighter color, and their stalks are about a foot taller.
Next week, farmers such as Cox are sending the season's last bales of burley to a buying station in New Holland, Pa. -- in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the heart of the nation's Amish population. From there, the tobacco will be transported to Philip Morris's cigarette factories.
"You've got the history of tobacco right here," Cox, 47, said, showing off his wooden tobacco barn in Prince Frederick that dates back more than 150 years. Cox said he did not take the state buyout because he reasoned that he could make more money by continuing to grow tobacco.
For Cox, tobacco is a way of life, as it has been for at least five generations of Coxes before him.
There was a time when tobacco farming defined Southern Maryland -- its culture, its economy, its landscape. The tobacco auction was held in Hughesville every March. Farmers would unload bundles of leaves from their pickups, buyers would feel them for texture and moisture, and auctioneers would scout for the winks and nods that sealed the deal.
But Maryland's production has declined remarkably. In 1946, about 46 million pounds of tobacco were sold at the Hughesville auction, according to statistics kept by Dave Conrad, a tobacco specialist at the University of Maryland. By 1983, that figure dropped to 37 million. By 1999, one year before the state buyout, just 9 million. Last year, a mere 300,000 pounds.
The few cigarette- and cigarmakers that bought Maryland tobacco, most of them European, are looking elsewhere, mainly Brazil, to satisfy their demand.
"It's a tremendous transition for Southern Maryland," said Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, a fourth-generation farmer and deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Larry Jarboe, a county commissioner in St. Mary's who has long been an advocate for the Amish, said the remaining farmers are smart to shift to burley.
"Times change," Jarboe said. "You either roll with the punches, or you just go under."
Last year, in Maryland farmers' first season producing burley, they sold about 500,000 pounds. This year, they are on target to double that load, Conrad said.
That figure is dwarfed by the 217 million pounds of burley produced annually across the country, but Conrad said Maryland's share is likely to keep expanding.
"As long as growers continue to be happy with the prices, I think we'll continue to see it grow," Conrad said.
Cox has a contract with Philip Morris to sell about 40,000 pounds at $1.55 to $1.60 a pound this season. He said he's not making as much a he did with Maryland tobacco. That crop sold for about $1.70 in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Still, it's enough for Cox. Enough to support his family and pay the mortgage on his 352-acre farm, where he also grows corn.
Burley is in high demand. It makes up about one-third of the blends for all domestic cigarettes, said Pam Haver, a spokeswoman for the Philip Morris buying station. U.S. manufacturers like using burley because of its strong taste and smoking characteristics.
The harvesting procedures are the same as for Maryland tobacco: The plants grow green, and around late summer, the leaves turn yellow. Then farmers cut the stalks and hang them upside down on sticks from the rafters of their barns.
The stalks take about a month to dry out. The long brown leaves -- dry, thin and wrinkled -- end up like pages of an ancient explorer's diary.
Farmers strip the dry leaves off the stalks by hand and sort them into four grades. The most valuable leaves are on the tip. The stalks are then spread over the field to fertilize the soil for next season.
Gilbert "Buddy" Bowling Sr., who owns the Hughesville warehouse that hosted the annual tobacco auction, said the decline of Maryland tobacco was an opportunity to begin burley production in Southern Maryland, where the soil and climate are good.
"With the advent of the buyout, the major companies saw a possible breakthrough where they could get some burley grown in Maryland," Bowling said.
Haver said the company is pleased with the growth of burley in Maryland. "Anybody who grows tobacco down there, it's all burley -- and it's all going to Philip Morris," she said.
Some farmers said raising the crop under contract is easier.
Melinda Fisher, 52, grows tobacco with her family on their Mechanicsville property. She said rates at the annual auction tended to be a tossup. With the Philip Morris contract, pricing is more secure.
"We like it better," Fisher, who is Amish, said as she stripped tobacco in their red barn with three of her children, Ruth, 18, Naomi, 17, and John, 10.
Another Amish farmer, Israel Fisher, 56, who raises burley on a neighboring property, agreed that "it's better without the auction."
"Up there at the auction, sometimes the tobacco that didn't grow so big, we [wouldn't] get much money for it," he added. "But this tobacco, if it's graded right, it sells."
But growing tobacco is a hard life, Cox explained, sitting on a footrest and tearing leaves in his lap at a breakneck pace. He stained his hands and dropped flakes of tobacco on his blue jeans, burgundy hoodie and brown boots.
In the winter, during stripping season, Cox said he spends nearly every waking hour -- from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. -- in the small stripping room.
"I hope you don't mind dust and nicotine, because you'll get an awful lot of it in here," the deep-voiced Cox warned, only half-joking. "I don't smoke. I get my nicotine from this. I get my fix right here."