UPPER MARLBORO – Joe Duvall stood in a frigid warehouse filled with the pungent smell of tobacco and assessed the acre of brown, leafy bundles stretched out behind him.
“It’s got a good color, but it’s a little bit heavier body,” said the Marlboro Tobacco Market worker, fingering one golden- brown leaf. “This means it was ripe when it was cut, it makes a better cigarette.”
Starting Tuesday, the cigarette makers will decide for themselves.
Their buyers will spend about four weeks roaming among the bundles in this and five other Southern Maryland warehouses, inspecting plants and setting prices during the state’s annual tobacco auctions.
Last year, a small but high-quality crop gave Maryland tobacco farmers the highest price they’ve seen in years, about $1.92 a pound.
But this year, they might not be so lucky.
“Last year the whole crop was dark and thin,” said Hill Summers, president of the Marlboro Tobacco Market, where Duvall works. “We might not see another crop like that for 10 years.”
That crop was the result of an “extremely wet year,” said David Conrad, a tobacco specialist with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.
The rains produced a dark, thin-leafed plant that burned easily with a mild taste. The rains also hampered crop growth, which helped drive up prices.
“When you have years with a lot of rainfall … some of the fertilizer leaches out. It doesn’t get all the fertilizer that’s necessary for adequate, abundant growth,” Conrad said.
He said the excessive rains made the 1997 crop drop to about 9.4 million pounds.
By contrast, this year’s crop is expected to come in at 11 million to 11.5 million pounds, said Raymond Hutchins, executive secretary of the State Tobacco Authority. The higher yield comes despite last summer’s drought.
“Tobacco is a weed, you can’t kill it,” said David Richards, a farmer from Baden. “It’s very drought-resistant, unlike a vegetable or hay.
“We got rain at least once a week … it’s been a pretty good crop out in our little area of Prince George’s County,” he said.
Richards dropped off 12 bundles of tobacco Thursday, totalling 2,632 pounds. He will go to the auctions to watch the prices being set, but said “there’s very little haggling involved.”
“The bidders don’t really drive (the price) up, there’s plenty of tobacco to go around,” he said.
But Conrad said prices can swing up or down as information about the crop volume and consumer demand trickles in during the auctions.
“Right now it’s a very, very delicate balance,” he said. “If production goes ahead of consumption you’ll see prices fall a little bit.
“Last year, export companies drove up the price when they found out the crop was not going to be good,” Conrad said.
Some tobacco has flavor, some is good filler, but Maryland tobacco is valued for one thing: It burns. And the thinner the leaf, the better the burn, said Duvall.
“I hope it’s not too heavy for the foreign trade,” he said of this year’s crop. “That’ll hurt us. They want the best. They set the highest price.”
As they have done for generations, the state’s tobacco farmers have spent recent weeks gathering their crop, tying it in bundles and trucking it to the auction warehouses.
But that way of life is under greater pressure than ever before. Conrad has estimated that, under sanctions Congress is planning for the tobacco industry, Maryland could eventually lose half its tobacco acreage.
But to Summers, the Marlboro Tobacco Market president, those losses would only continue a process begun by urban development.
The auctions “used to be about six weeks five years ago,” he said.
“Five years before that it was eight,” he said. “When I was a boy, it ran 16 weeks.”
And Duvall thinks lawsuits against tobacco companies will only continue that erosion of tobacco farming.
“Where will it stop, who are they going to sue next?” he asked. “It’s written right on the pack that tobacco causes heart disease, emphysema, cancer….”
Friendship farmer Willis Fowler apparently heeded those warnings.
“I quit smoking about 25 to 30 years ago. I knew it was killing me,” he said as he dropped off his tobacco Thursday and left for home.