WASHINGTON – Come Tuesday, Amish farmers in Cecil County will abandon their buggies and hire truckers to haul their tobacco to Charles County, where the Farmers and Hughesville warehouses are the only two tobacco-auction sites left in the state.
While the number of tobacco farmers has fallen in every county since Maryland started the buyout in 2001, growers are increasing in Cecil County, a traditionally non-tobacco area.
And the reason is strictly Amish.
Amish tobacco farmers — who for religious reasons do not participate in government programs — have crossed the Pennsylvania border into Cecil to try their luck at tobacco in Maryland.
They are bucking a trend that has seen other farmers — tempted by the buyout or discouraged by a subsequent loss of facilities and farming support — get out of the historic crop in large numbers.
Buddy Hance, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer from Anne Arundel County, said he had no choice but to give up his crop last year, in light of the 50-mile trip to the Charles County auction and the lack of resources for tobacco farming, such as fertilizer.
“It has no infrastructure. I didn’t want to take it (the buyout), but I just had to take it,” Hance said.
Hance is not alone: 77 percent of eligible farmers have joined the program so far, accounting for 89 percent of the eligible tobacco crop in the state. Officials project that 86 percent of farmers will have joined by next year, representing 94 percent of the crop.
But not the Amish.
“While the majority of folks have taken the buyout, it’s still a viable crop,” and Amish are capitalizing on what is left of the market, said Scott Rowe, the Cecil County extension agent.
In fact, he said, all but one of the tobacco farmers in Cecil are Amish.
“The Amish are looking to buy land and expand their communities and the fact that Maryland tobacco prices are higher than in Pennsylvania” has drawn them here, said David Conrad, the state tobacco expert and extension agent in Prince George’s County.
Maryland’s climate is different enough from Pennsylvania’s to yield a higher-quality leaf that cigarette companies prefer over most other types of tobacco in the nation, Conrad said. That’s why Maryland tobacco earns more than Pennsylvania leaf on average: Even during the 2002 drought, Maryland tobacco earned 10 cents more per pound than Pennsylvania’s.
Rowe estimated that more than half of the state’s tobacco growers are Amish, most of whom live in Charles and St. Mary’s counties.
State officials predict that about 2.2 million pounds of tobacco will go to market this year. Just five years ago, state farmers brought about 8.3 million pounds of tobacco to sell at auction sites across the state, Rowe said.
There will be no more than seven days of sales during the auction season that begins Tuesday — the same number of days as there were two years ago when five warehouses were auctioning tobacco, and a much shorter season than in years past.
Though the Amish will not accept the buyout anytime soon, Rowe said, limited access to auction warehouses — or their disappearance altogether — might eventually push them out of the market, killing Maryland’s tobacco industry for good.
But the secret to farming is “finding a niche market that you can exploit,” said Rowe. And he predicts the Amish will remain in the market for as long as the niche remains open.
-30- CNS 03-19-04