HUGHESVILLE, Md. – When the tobacco market opened Tuesday, farmers from across Maryland gathered hoping their harvests would be profitable, but some said this year’s auction was their last.
Amid the warm handshakes and jokes told, the hundreds of farmers at Farmers Warehouse who have grown tobacco in their families for generations shared a sense of loss.
Farmers see an end to their way of life as the cost of producing tobacco outstrips the price cigarette makers will pay for it.
Years ago, Edward J. Allen’s family moved to Maryland from Virginia so they could gradually switch from growing tobacco to alternative crops. But they soon realized crops such as corn and soybeans didn’t feed the family.
“We came here and realized we had to grow tobacco in order to live,” the 74-year-old farmer said.
Allen continued the tobacco-growing tradition his grandfather began until 1983. Then he sold his land to the state.
“We’re getting too old to put up with the headache of the farm,” he said from the tobacco auction he couldn’t stay away from. “They’ll (farmers) begin to sell to houses. Most tobacco farmers, or farmers overall, are getting too old anyway.”
The next generation is either not interested in farming or doesn’t have the money to buy the farms from their parents.
“A lot of them are moving out and going somewhere else to start a different type of life,” said one woman looking on as bidders passed over some bundles. “Kids of tobacco farmers get together with their parents to help pay their (parents’) taxes, or they can’t even afford to. This is getting ridiculous.”
Many market analysts predicted a lack of demand could push prices substantially lower than the benchmark $2 per pound by the end of the first week of the four-week auction.
But by week’s end, prices still were averaging about $1.80 per pound for top-grade tobacco, with some selling for $2 per pound. The lower-grade tobacco is selling for about $1.40 to $1.60 per pound.
These are about the same prices offered in the early 1980s for the same quality tobacco, growers said.
What’s causing financial troubles for Maryland farmers is not lower prices for tobacco crops, but the drought of the past year that made this year’s crop less than top quality. That, combined with increasing prices of equipment and labor, are what’s causing the farmers’ financial distress
Charles County farmer Jack Welch was selling his father’s last tobacco crop Tuesday. The cost of help and equipment was just too much to grow the labor-intensive crop.
“All I was doing was giving someone else a job and I wasn’t even making any money off of it,” Welch said. “There’s no answer to this problem right now.”
The problem with tobacco growing, although it has the potential to bring in a substantial amount of money, is that harvesting it is almost an 18-month- long, labor-intensive process. And machines can’t replace costly laborers.
Tobacco is usually planted in late May or early June. August and September are the main harvest times. Then the crop needs time to cure. And rain is needed to make the leaves fill out — rain that was much needed during this last season, but wasn’t received.
“One more shot of water probably would have made a whole lot of difference (this year),” Welch said.
Farmers said this year’s crop was not of the usual top quality. If lack of rain prevents the top leaves from filling out, they turn green and yellow. These colors are bad news for farmers. Buyers bypassed bushels that had even hints of these colors as they made their way through the millions of pounds of tobacco.
“Farmers are stretched economically because of the weather we had last year,” said Hughesville Tobacco Warehouse owner Gilbert “Buddy” Bowling. “If we have quality tobacco, we’ll have quality prices.”
When the tobacco is ready for harvest, the grower cuts each stalk by hand, then spears the stalks with stakes to hang the leaves in their barns to dry. When the leaves “come to order,” or season to the point where they get softer, the stalks are pulled off the sticks.
Mechanization for harvesting is limited. Some farmers have constructed homemade attachments to put on their tractors to help cut the stalks in the fields, but that’s about it.
“It’s done almost the same way it was 350 years ago,” Allen said. “This state was built on tobacco, now (Gov. Parris N.) Glendening is trying to eliminate it. But now it’s the worst evil that ever came about, according to Glendening.”
Glendening’s proposed $1 per pack cigarette tax increase has had farm representatives lobbying against the tax in Annapolis all session. Farmers argue the tax will cause even more lost revenue.
Their requests have been met with skepticism by lawmakers who say the farmers don’t need a 5 percent share of the state’s $4.4 billion windfall from last year’s tobacco settlement. Farmers asked for that much in legislation this session. The critics say farmers got all the compensation they needed in a $31.5 million separate settlement for growers alone.
Farmers respond by tallying their costs: a tractor can be as much as $60,000; fertilizer costs about $200 a ton; labor costs are increasing; and finally, they lose not only tobacco, but corn and soybeans, to hungry deer.
“Virginia farmers got half of their settlement, but we have to get down on our hands and knees just to get 5 percent,” Welch said. “(Maryland agriculture) might not be dead, but it’s pretty crippled right now.’
Last year, Welch came up $200,000 short from what he usually gets for his crops. Between drought, animal damage, and slim profits from raising corn and soybeans, he was in the hole even before he started.
“When you put about $5,000 out and get $5,062 back, that’s not a lot,” he said. “If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, that would one thing, but there’s not.”
The one light that may still shine bright for Maryland farmers is that of the international market.
Among the buyers bidding on opening day were representatives from countries like Switzerland and Italy – countries where Maryland tobacco is cherished.
Sitting in an office where a sticker reads, “Don’t Tax My Tobacco If You Want My Vote,” Farmers Warehouse owner Jane Schultz peruses international tobacco market charts and graphs and proudly reads off what foreigners think of Maryland tobacco.
“True, Maryland (tobacco) has a true, feminine taste,” writes one foreign buyer.
“Maryland tobacco is a specialty item,” Schultz said. “Everyone wants the best. It’s all competition and all about who has the money. Right now, they (foreign buyers) have the money.”
Cigarette brands like two Swiss products, MaryLong and Club, that are made with Maryland tobacco are big sellers abroad. The sweet taste and slow, even burn rate of the tobacco has a special appeal to foreigners, whereas domestic buyers want tobacco that burns faster.
Schultz said some Italian buyers wanted her to take them to see an actual tobacco farm on opening day. Usually, this request may cause some hesitation. Not now.
Last year, Italy bought more than one million pounds of Maryland tobacco. A Hamburg company has bought about 1.4 million pounds annually since 1992. In 1995, the Swiss bought about 1.8 million pounds.
“Now you see why I want to put them in my truck,” Schultz said. “As long as we raise Maryland tobacco, they’ll be here – they like it.”