UPPER MARLBORO – They look old, their faces lined like tobacco leaves and, in summer, about as dark. Most have been growing tobacco all their lives.
Standing in the cool, dim tobacco warehouse, they talk mostly about prices, murmuring among themselves as they fondle the rich-smelling leaf that is still a livelihood for some and no more than a sideline for others these days.
They talk the universal language of farmers: Prices are down, work is hard, help is impossible to find. But for these tobacco farmers, the words may be truer than they are for other growers.
Friends and neighbors have gotten out, they say, because the work is too hard for old men, and land values are so high.
State officials and federal statistics echo their words.
“You have a phenomenon where the average age of farmers . . . is increasing,” said Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. “Their retirement assets are usually in the form of their land,” which is ever more valuable in Southern Maryland, a booming bedroom community for Washington.
Add to that a booming economy, Evans said, where potential farm workers can “go flip burgers for eight dollars an hour. You’re inside. It’s not cold. It’s not particularly dangerous. It’s certainly not a lot of physical labor.”
Then there are what Evans calls the “social” reasons for getting out of tobacco farming: changing public attitudes toward smoking coupled with government efforts to curb tobacco use.
The number of acres devoted to growing Maryland tobacco has declined steadily, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From about 8,500 acres in 1992, it dropped to 6,500 acres last year, said Chuck Less, a USDA statistician for Maryland. Estimates for this year’s crop acreage are lower still: some 6,000 acres of tobacco to be planted starting next month, Less said.
But ask some of the farmers at this year’s auction why they are still in the business and most will say, well, they always have been.
Irving Brown, 92, remembers putting the plants in the ground with his bare hands on his parents’ five-acre Calvert County farm. That was in the 1930s, before he married and bought his own farm on Tobacco Road near Chesapeake Beach.
Now he plants by tractor, although he has been so sick the last two seasons he paid a nephew and a couple of seasonal workers to raise and harvest the two-acre crop.
Brown’s grandson, who lives nearby, brought him up to the market in Upper Marlboro for the tobacco auctions this month. Clinton Gross, 41, said he worked full time on his grandfather’s fields for three or four years, but no more, unless Brown needs extra help.
“No. My gracious, I’d rather get up and go to work,” said Gross, a construction laborer.
None of these farmers can talk about growing tobacco without mentioning how hard the work is.
That is why Buddy Boswell’s uncles and neighbors, who all raised tobacco when he was growing up on his father’s farm in Baden, switched to corn and soybeans, even though those crops yield less money per acre.
“Too much work. It’s manual labor,” he said.
Boswell was just a couple of years out of high school when he took over the 20-acre farm in 1970, after his father died. Now, he’s only farming four acres, small enough that he can do the work himself.
“Anything more than a couple acres, you’ve got to hire help,” Boswell said.
Maryland tobacco, called Type-32, is cured in barns over two or three months. Boswell said it takes three or four men to hang tobacco in a barn. “It weighs anywhere from 60 to 80 pounds a stick” when it’s freshly harvested, he said, but only about 1.5 pounds per stick once it has dried.
But even with those few acres and tobacco prices declining over the last few years, Boswell said he is getting a good return.
“It’s more money per year if you’ve got a small farm,” he said. “I’d probably have to raise 30 acres of soy or corn” to make the same amount.
As he speaks, a cluster of men approaches. Boswell steps out of the way for the buyers.
All of them have neatly styled graying hair and wear windbreakers. The auctioneer, whose name is Robert E. Lee, slows and utters an unbroken, unintelligible stream of syllables before each bale, until a price is set and the ticket writer scribbles out a grade and a number.
The group moves along steadily, stopping only when one of the buyers spots something unusual, like trash in a bale of leaves. Then they paw at the bale to see how pure it is.
There are five buyers today, plus a few agents and supervisors to make sure the buyers choose the grade their clients want. Most of the buyers, agents and supervisors come from North Carolina, as do the auctioneer and the man who starts the bidding.
Although the men are engaged in serious business, they literally share a backslapping camaraderie. Many work together several months each year.
Lee and the bid starter, Mac Day, travel with their wives to tobacco markets in North Carolina, Kentucky and Maryland from July through April. The wives work in the offices, helping to pay the farmers, while their husbands work the floor.
Both men grew up on tobacco farms. Working with the leaf is a way of life. Lee, 58, said he farmed his own tobacco until 1985, when his auctioning business in Kinston became too demanding. Though he chose the business over farming, Lee has fond memories.
“I’d rather grow tobacco than anything else,” he said. “It grows fast; it’s fun to watch it. If you’ve got a good crop, it’s better than grain, corn and beans. It’s more pleasurable to watch it grow.”
The buyers are trailed by the farmers, no more than two dozen, who walk the long, narrow aisles between the stacks of brown leaves inside Marlboro Tobacco Market. Though it is a bright, warm April morning, they wear caps, flannel shirts and field coats to fight the chill in the cavernous warehouse.
They move slowly, unlike the brisk pace kept by the cluster of buyers ahead of them.
Like the buyers, the farmers pick up clumps of leaves, look at the color, and turn them over. Unlike the buyers, they do not call out a price or a grade. Instead, they murmur their agreement or dissent from the price the ticket writer left behind.
Not bad, most say of the prices, which top out at $1.80 a pound on this day. But no one seems ecstatic, either.
One of the few women on the floor on a recent morning is Amanda Brady of Owings. Five months pregnant, she came to see how the year’s crop fared.
“What we’ve sold has done pretty good. I can’t complain. It had a better color this year. I don’t know (why). Both years were dry years,” she said, remembering the 1998 crop.
Brady, an exception this day, did not grow up tending tobacco.
“I married a tobacco farmer,” she said. It’s hard work but I have always wanted to live on a farm. I’d rather do hard work when I want. It’s worth the hard work. With a child on the way, I can be there. I don’t have to hire a babysitter.
Will she put her child to work when he or she is old enough, as is tradition?
“With the future of tobacco,” she said, “…probably not.”