UPPER MARLBORO – If the farming community ever needed a favor from the state government, it’s now, farm representatives said Thursday.
From an expected vote on Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s proposed $1 per pack cigarette tax, to media campaigns launched by anti-smoking groups, to decreasing domestic interest in Maryland’s tobacco, tobacco farmers say they have nowhere else to turn but to lawmakers for help shoring up their industry.
“What the growers of Maryland are asking for is fulfillment of a pledge made a year ago by the highest lawmakers in the state,” said Gary V. Hodge, adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board. “The wisest investment of public money they can provide at this time is 5 percent of the master settlement agreement” reached last year with cigarette makers to compensate states for treating sick smokers.
Hodge was referring to a commitment state legislators made last year to help tobacco farmers deal with their declining industry.
The comments came in a news conference held Thursday by Southern Maryland tobacco board representatives at Planters Tobacco Warehouse.
The farm representatives said the future of Maryland agriculture hinges on whether the General Assembly passes pending legislation to give the state’s 1,200 growers at least 5 percent of Maryland’s estimated $4.4 billion share of the national tobacco settlement.
Virginia’s General Assembly recently agreed to give their 10,000 growers half of their state’s $4 billion settlement.
Maryland farm representatives say their request of $220 million will help maintain the 8,500 acres of land used to support agriculture throughout the region.
“We don’t think that’s too much to ask considering all the tax increases and everything that has happened in the past few years,” said Steve Walter, president of the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board. “Tobacco farmers in the state of Maryland have never asked the state for anything. But somebody got religion, as some would say, and got it in their minds tobacco was bad.”
Hodge and Walter said the area’s tobacco farmers have refused other help, including allotment quotas and federal price support programs, but they’re on their knees now pleading for relief at a time when the tobacco market’s dismal future looms ahead.
“Today, they’re in a real crisis in Maryland,” Hodge said. “The stakes are huge for the quality of life in Southern Maryland if the (tobacco) industry goes under.”
When the four-week tobacco market opened March 23, the problems farmers face were apparent: domestic and foreign buyers passed over many bundles because of poor-quality. A combination of drought and animal loss contributed to the less-than-prime quality harvest.
An average grower can net about $1,500 per acre in a good year. Walter estimated the average tobacco farmer received 33 to 50 percent less in profits this year than in the past.
In a normal year, farmers would chalk up the problems to a bad season, but with likely increasing taxes on cigarettes and the huge settlements driving up tobacco product prices, growers say this year’s bad luck could turn into permanent financial distress.
“There’s a lot of tobacco in Maryland right here that’s still going unsold, but that’s because of (lack of) demand in the domestic market,” Walter said. “The foreign market’s doing OK.”
While Glendening continues to push his Smart Growth programs to slow urban sprawl, farmers say no assistance from the Statehouse means fewer farms and a proliferation of the mini-malls and restaurants springing up in Southern Maryland.
“If we lose too many growers this year, we’ll lose the whole infrastructure,” said Earl “Buddy” Hance, chairman of the Tobacco Committee of the Maryland Farm Bureau. “We’re concerned that if tobacco is taken out of this region, the whole agriculture will fail. What’s now farms and houses will turn to just houses.”
Walter agreed: “Our revenge is, Smart Growth goes out the window, in Southern Maryland anyway.”