ANNAPOLIS – It’s a week into the two-and-a-half month application period for Maryland’s tobacco buyout program and 75 farmers have already signed up.
If the trend continues, and officials believe it will, the program that will pay farmers handsomely not to grow tobacco could sound the death knell for the historically profitable cash crop.
The 75 farmers represent only 6 percent of Southern Maryland’s estimated 1,200 tobacco growers.
But the state’s tobacco farmers showed a high level of interest in a Tri- County Council for Southern Maryland survey mailed in June. The council, which represents Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties, administers the buyout program for the state.
Of the 450 farmers who responded, two-thirds supported the buyout and most of the rest asked for more information. Only 4 percent were not interested.
“There’s a five-year window to do this . . . some will be reluctant to take it in the first year,” said Robert L. Swann, the council’s governmental relations director. “And there’s a certain group of farmers who will want to raise tobacco regardless.”
Farmers have until Dec. 22 to turn in applications to take part in the first year of the buyout.
Opponents are concerned about the plan, because it requires a 10-year commitment from the farmer but must be re-funded by the state every year.
“My biggest concern is that there is no guarantee that money will be provided every year,” said James K. Raley, a fourth-generation St. Mary’s County tobacco farmer who has been vocal in his opposition to the buyout.
“Nothing’s written in stone and that’s what some people are looking for,” Swann said. The Tri-County Council and the state Department of Agriculture expect re-funding every year.
“Our governor is very committed to this program,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Hagner R. Mister. “I can’t see the Legislature not honoring these contracts.”
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who spearheaded the program, will leave office in 2002, and cannot legally run again.
The state budgeted $9 million for the buyout program earlier this year, an amount expected to be inadequate given the high level of interest in the program.
Glendening, at a September press conference, said it would be “unfair” to deny a farmer access to the program because of a lack of funding and promised to ensure the money meets the demand.
“I’d be tickled to stand here in a year and say `We’ve signed the last contract,'” he said at the time.
Growers voluntarily enter the program. But opponents worry if enough farmers enter, the program could push those who do not take the buyout out of the tobacco business forever.
“We’re almost totally dependent on our export market, Europe. If (Southern Maryland) can’t produce enough tobacco for their needs then they’ll go somewhere else,” Raley said.
A draft copy of the contract obtained by Capital News Service lays out the program’s details. Using an average of 1997, 1998, and 1999 tobacco sales, the program will pay farmers $1 per pound for 10 years. If a farmer dies within that period, payments would go to the farmer’s estate.
Per pound tobacco prices have hovered around $1.70 in recent years, though production costs average about $1 per pound, Swann said.
In return for the payments, farmers agree to stop growing tobacco “for the remainder of the grower’s life.” They must grow or raise another agricultural product for 10 years after signing the contract.
Another person could not raise tobacco on land owned by a buyout participant. However, a new owner – who had not taken the state’s buyout – could grow tobacco.
There is one provision that would allow participants to grow tobacco – if it is not for smoking or human consumption. A participant also could help non- participants with their tobacco farm for a limited period with the permission of the council.
“That’s there so in case somewhere down the road someone discovers some kind of genetically engineered tobacco could cure cancer or something like that. That’s why it’s in there, just in case,” Swann said.
As for enforcement, the contract allows a council representative to inspect the farmer’s land “from time to time.” Despite the language, Mister suspects Southern Maryland tobacco farmers will police themselves.
Violations could land farmers in court, where they could be forced to repay the buyout with 6 percent annual interest.