ANNAPOLIS – In the waning days of the 1999 General Assembly session, Gov. Parris N. Glendening agreed that tobacco farmers ought to get a chunk of the $4.4 million Maryland will collect from cigarette makers. Now he’s qualifying that promise – they’ll get no money to continue growing tobacco.
That’s prompted farmers to say he’s not only backing off this year’s deal, but one cut in the previous session as well.
During the 1998 Assembly session, legislation was passed ensuring that tobacco growers would be compensated. During the 1999 session, farmers won a promise of 5 percent of the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement to help their ailing industry.
This session, Glendening cut a deal with Sens. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D- Charles, and Roy P. Dyson, D-St.Mary’s, to break a Senate filibuster that was delaying a vote on the 30-cent cigarette tax that he supported. Glendening agreed to give tobacco farmers the 5 percent if Middleton and Dyson would help end the filibuster.
Glendening told Capital News Service last week that he would not use the settlement money to prop up tobacco prices.
“I won’t use the money to subsidize tobacco growing. I think it’s illogical,” the governor said.
Some farmers see that as a problem.
“I’d say this is the governor’s feeling he doesn’t think master settlement agreement funds should be spent that way,” said Gary V. Hodge, adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board. “Now there seems to be revised thinking on the subject.”
The language in the cigarette restitution bill passed by the Assembly this session gives the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland control of the growers’ aid, and specifies that it be awarded “with an emphasis on” alternative crop uses for agricultural land now used for growing tobacco.
Delegate Samuel C. Linton, D-Charles, said he doesn’t think the bill addresses the problem of making agriculture in Southern Maryland viable. Right now, the 8,500 acres of tobacco grown there sustains about two-thirds of all agricultural land in the area.
“If agriculture isn’t viable in Southern Maryland, you have to devote your land to some other use, or sell it,” Linton said.
The Tri-County Council’s plan for the money includes farmland preservation, a buyout of tobacco farmers, programs to help growers transition to other crops, and research for alternative uses for tobacco. The council’s plan also includes $1 per pound compensation for “economic loss” to tobacco growers.
That’s not what the governor had in mind, he told Capital News Service. The money will go to those farmers who decide to grow alternative crops on their land. Aid will come in the form of paying the difference of the income farmers receive from, say, 10 acres of corn in comparison to 10 acres of tobacco, he said.
“For some extended period, if they (farmers) stop growing tobacco, we’ll help cover these costs,” Glendening said.
No other crop can bring in as much profit per acre as tobacco, Hodge said, so farmers have to begin to plan for the future and safeguard themselves against future losses.
“If you saw a threatening, uncertain future in one of your investments, you would diversity your stock portfolio to spread out your risks,” he said.
With an unstable tobacco market and rising cost of production, most tobacco farmers have had to grow crops such as corn and soybeans to stay out of the red. But those crops, too, suffer from fickle markets that prefer West Coast grains. That’s why Maryland farmers don’t make much profit from the transition.
“I think every tobacco farmer’s first choice would be to continue growing tobacco,” Hodge said. “That’s not an issue. The issue is sustaining Southern Maryland agriculture.”
Maryland tobacco growers are getting a bit of a boost from the international market because foreign buyers are hungry for the state’s slow, even-burning tobacco.
“They’re the worker bees, and they’ve got the money” said Jane Schultz, owner of Farmers Tobacco Warehouse in Hughesville.
But if farmers can’t get some financial help to continue growing it, the supply to foreign buyers will dwindle. This means tobacco could eventually fade from Maryland’s agricultural history.
“It’s essential we look at the future and that growers take prudent steps to protect themselves from the impact of the crisis,” Hodge said.
Glendening said he signed a letter and sent it to Middleton and Dyson that promised the 5 percent aid. But the governor’s press office said nothing was signed and the agreement during the filibuster was more of a “gentleman’s agreement.” Dyson’s office also said no such letter was yet received from Glendening.