MECHANICSVILLE – Speeding down windy Route 236 in St. Mary’s County – just south of the Charles County border – it’s the wood-planked barns and the overpowering musty-earthy perfume that let visitors know they’ve suddenly entered the heart of tobacco country.
But it’s the horse-and-buggy road signs that signal you’re also in Amish country, where the unflinching dedication to growing the noxious cash crop is trumped only by the residents’ dedication to God, a simple way of life, and disdain for all things government.
The two ways of life – Amish and tobacco are intertwined here, but perhaps not for much longer. As the state continues its war against tobacco – and Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s program to subsidize tobacco farmers who switch to alternative crops continues – the government-shunning religious community, including a Mennonite group, may be left without a cash crop.
Glendening has said publicly that he would like to see all Southern Maryland tobacco farmers take the buyout, a virtual impossibility given that Amish and Mennonite farmers will not do so. But his goal of eliminating tobacco from the list of crops grown in the state may still be reached even if the estimated 150 Amish and Mennonite farmers in the region do not sign up.
Tobacco farmers and program administrators interviewed said buyers who trek annually to Southern Maryland’s tobacco auctions – largely high-end European cigarette manufacturers who crave Maryland’s reportedly fine product – have made it clear that decreased production might put an end to those trips, and thus kill the market for tobacco here.
The program has proved popular, and production will likely decrease. As of mid-November, 260 of the state’s estimated 1,200 tobacco farmers signed up to take the buyout, and many more are expected to get on board before the Dec. 22 deadline.
Program administrators repeatedly have said farmers who sign up for the program choose whether to stop growing tobacco. Amish and Mennonite farmers, because of their government-avoiding beliefs, do not have that choice.
“The Amish and Mennonites won’t participate at all. They’re not really keen on it,” said James K. Raley, a St. Mary’s County tobacco farmer who sees the devoutly religious farmers occasionally.
Two Amish farmers and one Mennonite tobacco grower interviewed for this story made it plain that life would be difficult without tobacco. All three spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal in their communities.
“Tobacco is what saves us,” said the first Amish farmer. “If tobacco is not here, we’d be hurting bad.”
Their reasons for not taking the buyout are clear.
“We just don’t feel right taking government handouts. We take care of our own people,” said the first Amish farmer. “As far as I know, none of our people will take the buyout.”
But it’s even more basic for the second Amishman.
“It’s about giving up your rights,” he said.
Both the Amish and Mennonites migrated south from Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 1940s, and have built small but solid agriculture-based communities in that time, the three farmers said.
All three farmers said they feel little animosity toward government for instituting the program, despite the potential detriment to their livelihood.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said the Mennonite farmer. “There’s no use feeling bad.”
“The governor respects and understands the commitments that the Amish and Mennonites have to their religion,” said Michelle Byrnie, a Glendening spokeswoman. “But the economic reality is that tobacco is on its way out.” Despite their best efforts to distance themselves from government, the “real world” encroaches. Many take government nutrient management classes and have to conform to state pollution standards, said James “Bubby” Norris, an extension agent for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in St. Mary’s County. Norris works frequently with Amish and Mennonite farmers.
Sometimes government involvement creates divisions in the community. For the past several years, federal subsidies have been available to tobacco farmers in Maryland to help compensate for the national attack on their crop. Unlike Maryland’s buyout program, the federal subsidy pays growers while they continue growing the crop.
The Mennonite farmer said some of his people took it.
“It caused a problem in the church,” he said, and those who took it are in the process of returning it.
The three farmers said they are not yet worried about tobacco disappearing. Still they’re planning for the worst.
Alternative crops are an option, though none seem as lucrative as tobacco.
“If tobacco goes out, we’re looking to get into cut flowers,” said the first Amish farmer. “We’re not sure if it will be a good thing or not.”
“The state would be happy to work with the Amish and Mennonite communities, if and when they come to the point where they need assistance transitioning to other crops,” Byrnie said. Some companies have had discussions with individual farmers about entering into a contract arrangement if the auction market in Southern Maryland dries up.
In North Carolina and Virginia, two states that produce most of the country’s tobacco, the contract system has become increasingly popular, Norris said. The arrangement – where companies agree to buy a certain amount of tobacco directly from a grower – can be lucrative at first, he said.
But when the auction system disappears, and companies no longer have to compete with that system, the conventional wisdom is that those deals will not be as good for the farmers, he said.
The foreseeable death of tobacco is not just about the end to an economically viable crop for these communities. It is also about the death of tradition.
“My sons, that’s what they want to do someday,” the Mennonite farmer said. “They’d rather do that than bend over in a produce field all day.”
But the Mennonite farmer does not see this as a completely one-sided issue.
“The way people are looking at tobacco now, we may quit. In a good Christian light, if it’s harmful, maybe we should stop growing it,” he said.
“God will provide one way or another,” he said. “I’m not worried. It’s just hard to figure which way to turn right now.”