UPPER MARLBORO – Phillip Jones, a 64-year-old tobacco farmer from Calvert County, said he won’t be able to make a living if prices drop any lower at Maryland tobacco auctions.
Prices have “started dwindling down to the point where they make it impossible for a man to raise it,” Jones said in a quiet, deep voice, on the first day of the annual auctions in Southern Maryland.
Jones, who has farmed for 30 years, said tobacco company buyers were paying farmers $1.95 a pound for high-quality grades of tobacco early Tuesday at Planters Tobacco Warehouse.
That was a good price at 10 cents a pound more than last year’s best leaf, he said. But some of the lower grades had dropped to $1.40 a pound. He shook his head and said it wasn’t enough.
Claude McKee, an agronomist with the University of Maryland, said farmers shouldn’t get too alarmed by opening-day prices. “There’s no rhyme or reason to price levels today,” he said, predicting the average price would stabilize somewhere between the day’s high and low.
Alphonso F. Nutwell, 50, a tobacco farmer from Lothian, Md., agreed. “The first day isn’t a good judge [of prices],” he said. “The buyers are trying to see what prices they can give, how low they can go before people start complaining.”
Bruce West, a state statistician for the Maryland Agriculture Statistic Service, said the average price for tobacco at last year’s auctions was $1.51 a pound.
But Larry Wilson, a 43-year-old tobacco farmer from Huntingtown, Md., wasn’t appeased.
He said prices haven’t kept pace with inflation.
“The prices of equipment, chemicals and labor have gone up so much in the past 15 or 20 years, but you’re getting the same [tobacco] prices,” he said. “A lot of people are getting out of it, or cutting down.”
Wilson, who has grown tobacco for 34 years, said he cut his own production about five years ago from 20 acres to seven.
West said Maryland acres devoted to tobacco dropped from 27,000 in 1983 to 8,500 in 1994.
Wilson attributes much of the decline to government regulations aimed at curbing second-hand smoking. He said Maryland’s economy needs the tax revenue tobacco can generate.
West said the crop’s total sales were more than $18 million in Maryland during 1993.
Wilson said a work place ban scheduled to take effect in Maryland March 27 would be disappointing. He said smoking is an individual choice “for the ones that want to, especially in a tobacco-growing state.”
The auctions, scheduled to run through April 6, rotate between six warehouses, in Upper Marlboro, Waldorf, Hughesville, and Wayson’s Corner.
For much of the morning Tuesday, tobacco farmers at two Upper Marlboro warehouses hunched over baskets of fragrant tobacco leaves, examining the plant’s color, quality and level of brittleness.
Meanwhile, about 10 buyers followed an auctioneer through cramped aisles between the four-foot-high baskets of tobacco leaves. They offered competing bids while the auctioneer called prices with dizzying speed.
Mike Phipps, president of the Calvert County Farm Bureau, said buyers look for a dark, thin leaf that typically contains lower levels of nicotine.
Such leaves were more common Tuesday at Planters than they were last year, Phipps said. The 1993 crop sold last year suffered from a prolonged drought – causing a thick leaf – and bringing the average price down, he said. -30-