WASHINGTON – Although last summer’s severe weather kept average prices down for the second year in a row at the Maryland tobacco market, foreign buyers continued to pay a premium for top-grade leaf, industry officials said.
Overall, the last market of the century, which ended Thursday, “ended up a whole lot better than we thought it would,” said Hill Summers, manager and president of Marlboro Tobacco Market in Upper Marlboro.
Farmers received an average price per pound of $1.66, three cents higher than last year’s average price. European companies, which prefer Maryland Type 32 tobacco, paid the same prices for high-quality leaf that they have in recent years – between $1.80 and $2.00 per pound, said Ray Hutchins, executive secretary of the Maryland State Tobacco Authority.
What brought the average down, officials said, was low prices on drought and storm-damaged tobacco, some of which drew just 40 cents a pound.
Hurricane Floyd, which struck in mid-September, caught some farmers who had not yet harvested all of their crop.
“With the high winds and a lot of rain, it just beat it, bruised it,” said John Buchheister, manager at Planter’s Tobacco Warehouse in Upper Marlboro.
Bruised leaves end up spotted after they are cured, he said, and this year’s damaged leaves were “green, almost black in some cases.”
Still, Maryland farmers sold almost $15.7 million worth of tobacco from the 1999 crop.
“Some of the farmers were satisfied. I wouldn’t say they were elated. Some were very disappointed,” Buchheister said. “For the majority of the farmers, the tobacco sold fairly well. We got through another year.”
The state tobacco authority reported that more than 9.4 million pounds were sold this year, down from last year’s total of almost 9.6 million.
“Fairly impressive numbers,” said Gary V. Hodge, adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, which represents growers in the five Southern Maryland counties.
“Obviously, we’re in a crisis in the tobacco industry in the U.S. and in Maryland. To have produced almost 9.5 million pounds in the context of that crisis is impressive.”
Unfavorable weather has combined in recent years with an unfavorable social and political climate for tobacco, officials said. Domestic companies are not buying as much Maryland tobacco. This year, R.J. Reynolds, one of the leading U.S. tobacco companies, did not send a buyer to the four-week, 15-day Maryland market.
Last month, growers voted overwhelmingly to continue contributing a half- cent per pound of tobacco sold at auction to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board’s efforts to promote Maryland tobacco here and abroad.
The number of acres of tobacco grown in Maryland has been dropping in the 1990s, from 8,500 acres in 1992 to 6,500 last year, according to federal statistics.
Farmers expect to plant just 6,000 acres this year, said Chuck Less, a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA has warned that another drought may afflict the mid-Atlantic states this summer, said a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Christine Beall, who compiles the annual sales numbers for the Maryland State Tobacco Authority, echoed the fears of growers and warehouse owners alike.
“They say the drought’s going to be worse this year than last,” she said, “and that gives me a headache even to listen to it.”