Eight years ago, tobacco farming was strong in Southern Maryland, with nearly 1,000 growers selling about 9.5 million pounds of the crop known as Maryland tobacco.
Today, Southern Maryland farmers have stopped growing it for a simple reason: There are so few producers left that their crop is no longer large enough to attract buyers. For the first March since 1939, there will be no tobacco auction in Hughesville.
About 854 tobacco farmers participated in the state tobacco buyout program, which lasted from 2000 to 2005. Under the program, farmers received payments based on their average production before they enrolled in the buyout.
Though these farmers are no longer growing tobacco, they remain active in agriculture. Many of them have turned to other crops, including wine grapes, vegetables and nursery stock, and some use their farms for agri-tourism, according to a recent study by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.
"The intent of the buyout is that people would use the funds to invest in new agricultural crops and enterprises, and some are doing that," said Christine Bergmark, director of the commission.
Through the buyout, the state is providing former tobacco farmers with payments over a 10-year period as well as tools such as land preservation, and grant and marketing programs to help them develop alternative crops or agricultural businesses. In exchange, the participants have to remain in agriculture through the 10-year period, Bergmark said.
The commission surveyed the buyout participants in 2006 about their current farming practices. About 544 of the participants responded to the survey.
Since the buyout, about 70 percent of respondents said they have maintained or expanded their farm operations, the study found.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they are growing traditional crops, such as hay and vegetables, or raising livestock. About 12 percent said they are growing alternative crops, such as wine grapes, greenhouse bedding plants, nursery plants and cut flowers. This category also includes agri-tourism.
"I think for Southern Maryland, the future is probably going to be more in the mixed farming, the different kinds of more cash-producing crops," Bergmark said. "We're looking right now at grapes and wines. Some of the nurseries have been growing" in numbers.
Meanwhile, about 100 farmers are still growing tobacco in Southern Maryland. Most are Amish, who have not participated in the buyout because they do not believe in accepting government subsidies. These holdouts have begun growing a different crop, burley tobacco, which is in high demand from U.S. cigarette manufacturers, such as Philip Morris USA.
"Times change," said Larry Jarboe (R), a county commissioner in St. Mary's who has long been an advocate for the Amish. "You either roll with the punches or you just go under."
David Cox, 47, of Prince Frederick, still grows tobacco, though now it's the burley variety. He is a fifth-generation tobacco farmer in Calvert County and said he didn't take the buyout because he reasoned he could make more money continuing to grow tobacco.
He said he will continue to farm tobacco for years to come, even though the work -- the growing and cutting and hanging and stripping -- is tiresome.
"It's an all-year job," Cox said. "There is no break from it."
The demise of tobacco farming has been a cultural and economic shift for Southern Maryland.
Farmers would auction their tobacco every year at warehouses in Waldorf, Upper Marlboro and Hughesville. Now the Hughesville warehouse is a year-round flea market, selling antiques, hardware, jewelry, baseball cards, coins and other collectibles.
"It's a tremendous transition for Southern Maryland," said Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, a fourth-generation Calvert County farmer and the newly named deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.