ANNAPOLIS – When it comes to tobacco farmers, the American Heart Association has had a change of heart.
In a move that surprised almost everyone present, a lobbyist for the Maryland chapter of the American Heart Association made an eloquent plea at a Senate hearing Wednesday to help tobacco farmers.
Stephen Buckingham, representing the anti-smoking organization, testified in favor of a bill to create the Task Force on the Future of Maryland Agriculture. That proposed commission would look at problems facing farmers across the state and advise the government on making policy.
“I am certain you are wondering what the Heart Association is doing testifying on an agricultural bill,” Buckingham told the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. “I am here to make a confession and atone for past sins.”
Buckingham said that although the American Heart Association supports efforts to regulate tobacco and prevent children from picking up the smoking habit, many health advocates have ignored how their efforts affect those who grow tobacco.
“Worst of all, I failed to realize how we tobacco control advocates came to treat farmers as no better than opium and cocaine producers in Third World countries,” Buckingham added.
Buckingham was just one of several people representing diverse interest groups – from environmental, development and farming organizations – who testified in favor of the bill.
The task force, made up of experts and industry representatives, would study options like tax breaks to help farmers pass their farms on to younger generations and economic incentives to protect agricultural land from developers.
The support of the American Heart Association, whose push for higher cigarette taxes has been unpopular among tobacco farmers, was a nice feather in the bill’s cap.
It was also welcomed by Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R- Somerset, a farmer and nursery owner who sits on the committee.
“Some of us that are farmers feel quite misunderstood in what we do. It’s very difficult when we know we have to address these health issues, but there are also strong economic pressures … I sincerely appreciate your comments,” he told Buckingham.
Buckingham said that his eyes were opened to the plight of tobacco farmers during a regional conference in Virginia last year, which aimed to bridge the gulf between health advocates and tobacco growers.
“It really happened because I met some very real tobacco farmers. I got three days of rubbing elbows with them,” he said.
After returning from the meeting, he convinced the heart association’s Maryland chapter to think about tobacco farming in a new light.
While the organization does not exactly condone growing tobacco, it felt the need to recognize that there are both economic and cultural pressures that prevent tobacco farmers from making other choices, Buckingham said.
Few crops bring in such high prices as tobacco, and many Maryland farmers are at an age where changing their livelihoods is unrealistic.
“There are some people who don’t want to stop growing tobacco, and we shouldn’t force them to. … Are we going to tell them to plant cucumbers or strawberries? That doesn’t work,” Buckingham said.
He said he hoped the formation of the Maryland Task Force on the Future of Maryland Agriculture, which will be voted on by the committee in the next few weeks, would give farmers across the state the best chance to succeed.
“Farming is much more than producing a commodity. It is a positive way of life that involves a rich culture and a justifiable sense of pride,” he said.