WALDORF – It’s ugly, said one farmer about prices at Maryland’s annual tobacco auction, which began earlier this month without the usual opening ceremonies.
“They’re tryin’ to steal it,” said Calvin Bowling of Newburg about the prices buyers were offering tobacco growers. “That’s the damn truth, they ain’t payin’ what they should be.”
His frustration, aimed at farming in general, was shared by many farmers at the warehouse in Waldorf almost two weeks ago. But the tobacco growers may not be grumbling much longer.
Most have agreed to take part in a state program – paid for with Maryland’s $4.4 billion settlement with cigarette makers – to quit growing tobacco and convert their land to other agricultural uses. They’ll get 10 annual payments of $1 per pound of their annual harvest based on average production in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
Of the 955 certified tobacco growers in Maryland, 700 have applied for the program and 487 have returned signed contracts to participate. The deadline to return contracts is April 22, and growers not participating this year may sign up during the next five years.
Bowling, 63, said he used to plant 45 acres of tobacco, but planted only 2 acres this year. He is taking the state’s buyout, and will continue to grow grain and raise cattle.
“I still enjoy it,” Bowling said, “but it’s aggravating when you don’t get anything out of it.”
Bowling was selling his crop Thursday at the 60,000-square-foot warehouse – hidden from U.S. 301 by the sprawl that covers this once-remote part of the state.
“Waldorf Warehouse” – in large, red metal letters – are the only words on the outside of the huge metal building where the auction takes place.
Inside, three aging banners that read “Pride in Tobacco” are hung from rafters. Another reads “Maryland Home of the 1985 Tobacco Auctioneer Champion Sandy Houston.”
On the floor, rows of pallets piled 3- to 4-feet high with tobacco stretch across the length of the 400-by-150-foot shed – barely illuminated by skylights on this rainy day.
Aside from one wide center aisle, there is barely enough room between the rows for a person to walk, which the auctioneer and a dozen or so buyers must do to bid on the crop.
The group shimmies between the rows, the auctioneer calls prices and buyers pick at the leaves and wave a hand or a few fingers to signal their bids. The warehouse owner, Pat Bowling, who is not related to Calvin Bowling, estimates 175,000 pounds of tobacco will be sold this day.
Tobacco auctions have been a fixture of Maryland’s agricultural history for much of the state’s 367-year history, according to Raymond Hutchins, executive director of the Maryland Tobacco Authority. Loose-leaf tobacco has been sold at auction in southern Maryland since 1939, and before that it was packed in barrels and shipped to Baltimore to be sold. Now, the tobacco comes in rectangular bales or tied in bundles with the dark brown leaves fanning out from the knotted base. The tied bundles are more attractive, particularly to European buyers, and bring a better price, said the farmers. Europeans buying Maryland tobacco is nothing new, said another farmer, Jamie Raley of Leonardtown. “We used to sell to the English and French,” he said, “360 years later we’re selling to the Swiss, Germans and Italians.” Europeans prefer Maryland tobacco, according to Raley and others, because it has thin leaves, ignites easily and burns slowly. This year’s crop is especially good, farmers said, because the heavy rains last summer made the leaves especially thin. One of a group of farmers talking with Bowling picked up a damp leaf and held a lighter to it. Poof – a half-dollar-sized hole went up in smoke, then a thin red glowing circle slowly widened. The high quality of the crop raised expectations for sale prices of $2 or more per pound, Raley said. But sales this day were averaging less than $1.80, according to Pat Bowling. That’s where the prices have dwelled for the past several years, farmers complained, while farming costs have risen. The biggest problem, many said, is finding and paying for the labor involved in tobacco farming. Tobacco harvesting is done almost entirely by hand, often requiring hired help to cut and hang the tobacco stalks to cure in the barns. Hand labor is also involved at auction time to strip the leaves from the stalks and bale or tie the tobacco for transport to market. Not everyone is complaining – or taking the buyout for that matter. Nathaniel Stauffer, 40, is a tobacco farmer, and a Mennonite from Loveville. Stauffer and other Mennonites are forbidden from taking the state’s money for religious reasons, yet he doesn’t seem too concerned about his future farming tobacco. For one thing, Stauffer only grows 2 and-a-half acres. Much of his land is now devoted to fresh produce that he sells in season. Stauffer also has an advantage finding labor: he has 13 children – seven girls and six boys between ages 18 and 8 months. Raley won’t be taking the buyout either. He quit working for the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s office to farm full time with his father and son. Raley’s son quit playing guitar in a heavy-metal band to farm with his father, and both of Raley’s daughters help too. His youngest daughter, 9, made $550 dollars by picking up tobacco leaves stranded during the harvest, he said. The Raley farm has been in the family for more than a century, and family tradition may be the only reason to stay in the business of growing tobacco for Raley. Tobacco growing could have died on its own, even without the buyout, Raley said, because the high cost of entering discourages new farmers, and the low return forces others out. Whether the auction will continue beyond this year is another question. As much as 87 percent, or 6.7 million pounds, of this year’s anticipated tobacco could be eliminated by the buyout. With so little tobacco for sale next year, the auction might not be worth it.
Although many farmers will not sell a crop next year, the auction could survive with the small knot of family farmers who plan to continue a tradition as old as Maryland itself. Warehouse owner Bowling, isn’t sure whether he’ll hold an auction next year. “I’ll have to play it by ear,” he said. “Right now, I’m planning on being in business.” – 30 – CNS-3-23-01