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Maryland Tobacco Crop Goes Up in Smoke : Life style: Farmers are giving up a 350-year-old tradition and switching to vegetable growing. Houses are also rapidly replacing many farms.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Sixty years of tobacco. That’s how Henry Miller describes his life. His hands, wrinkled and stained from working the fields, have known nothing else.

“I’m a tobacco farmer,” Miller said, nodding his head for emphasis. “My family’s been growing tobacco for 150 years.” But after generations of harvesting almost 70 acres of the sweet, heavy-scented crop, Miller didn’t plant a single acre this spring.

“It’s all over now,” he said softly. “The Millers won’t be growing tobacco anymore.”

Like hundreds of other Southern Maryland farmers, Miller has given up a 350-year-old Maryland tradition. Caught between faltering demand for cigarettes and the scarcity of labor needed to work the fields, the farmers have stopped growing tobacco--once considered the backbone of the state.

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But unlike many who were defeated, Miller is trying to hold onto his farm, which locals say was one of the biggest tobacco operations in the state.

This year, he replaced his tobacco crop with vegetables.

“People have to eat, but they don’t have to smoke,” Miller reasoned.

Only 8,500 acres of tobacco were planted in Southern Maryland in 1989, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just seven years ago, more than 24,000 acres were devoted to the crop. While thousands of acres have been sold to developers, there are still many farmers, like Miller, who are trying to make the switch to other commodities.

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To help ease the transition, Maryland officials have converted the little-used state tobacco warehouse in Cheltenhem, near Waldorf, into a retail and wholesale produce market that gives the former tobacco farmers an outlet for their new crops.

Since opening on July 3, the Southern Maryland Regional Farmers Market has swarmed with customers eager for squash, green beans and tomatoes. Virtually all of the 28 farmers who operate the produce stands are former tobacco farmers.

Eileen Shlagel, one of the produce vendors, said the market will provide a desperately needed source of income. “Tobacco was the cash crop in Maryland,” she said. “Without it, it’s going to be hard to survive.” Shlagel and her husband, Russell, plant more than 200 acres on a farm near Waldorf in Charles County. The farm has been in the family for more than 100 years, and until last year, tobacco was always part of the harvest.

“I’d go back to tobacco if I could,” Russell Shlagel said. “When you do something like that for such a long time, it’s hard to make the switch. But we’re going to try.”

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The Shlagels’ farm, once surrounded by other fields and greenery, now is bordered by subdivisions. The encroaching development has made life even more difficult, Russell Shlagel said. “I have to plan my manure spreading around the neighbors’ weekend cookouts,” he said. “Otherwise, we get lots of complaints. That’s no way to run a farm.”

George B. Roche, marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said houses are replacing tobacco farms at a rapid rate. “Houses are the No. 1 crop in Southern Maryland,” he said. “With all of the developers out there offering such high prices for the land, it’s no wonder more farmers haven’t sold out.” In 1982, there were about 2,400 farms in Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties, which traditionally make up Southern Maryland’s tobacco belt. By 1987, that number had dropped more than 50%, to 1,300 farms, according to the U.S. Agriculture Census. Roche and other agriculture experts estimate that another 200 farms have been sold in the past two years.

Gary Hodge, executive director of the Tri-County Council, a government group that represents St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties, said he hopes the produce market will keep more farmers from selling their land, thereby halting the rapid growth of residential and commercial development in the area.

“This isn’t just a problem for the farmer,” Hodge said. “Everybody’s complaining about overdevelopment. Unless we convince the farmers to stick around, we won’t be able to control the growth.”

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Hodge is quick to point out that tobacco still is Maryland’s third largest crop, accounting for auction sales of $18 million this year and as much as $57 million as recently as five years ago. But the 11.7 million pounds of tobacco that were sold in April still are a drop in the bucket when compared with national production levels.

“In North Carolina auctions, that much tobacco can be sold in one day,” Hodge said. Last year, the United States produced more than 2 billion pounds of tobacco, according to the USDA. Although flu-cured and burley tobaccos account for almost all of the nation’s production, Maryland tobacco, known in the industry as Type 32, holds a special niche in the marketplace. Maryland’s unique variety is valued because of its ability to hold a flame, and it has been particularly popular in Europe, where unfiltered cigarettes are common.

Many packs of European cigarettes make a point to advertise that they contain Maryland-grown tobacco. Luxembourg even has a cigarette brand called Maryland.

“Most people don’t realize what a specialty Maryland tobacco is,” said Peter Wilby, international marketing specialist with the state Department of Agriculture. “The state of Maryland was formed by the British to grow tobacco. Maryland tobacco was king.”

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But as health concerns about the effects of tobacco have grown, tobacco use has fallen. And as farmers find other crops and farms give way to suburban development, the age-old way of life in Southern Maryland is slowly and, most say, inevitably coming to an end.

Historically, much of the state’s crop each year is purchased by Swiss cigarette manufacturers, although Type 32 tobacco also is used in small portions in some American cigarettes. While export demand for cigarettes is growing, domestic consumption continues to fall.

U.S. cigarette production is expected to decline 2% to 3% from last year, said Bob Miller, a tobacco specialist with the USDA.

At the same time, Europeans are smoking fewer cigarettes than ever before, Wilby said. “The Europeans liked to smoke a heavier cigarette, which got its flavor from the Maryland leaf. But they’re changing to a milder blend, and they’re smoking less and less,” he said.

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Wilby estimates that exports account for only 25% of Maryland tobacco sales, compared with 50% just 10 years ago.

Faced with the continued drop in demand, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is sponsoring trade missions to Asia, where cigarette consumption is on the rise. This year, South Korea purchased about 300,000 pounds of Maryland tobacco, a first-ever sale for the state.

Wilby and others insist that if Maryland tobacco is to survive another decade, new markets must be found. But this year, only $7,500 was appropriated for marketing overseas, Hodge said. “We can’t do much with $7,500,” he said. “But you can’t blame the state for not giving us more, given the market conditions.”

The farmers say it’s only a matter of time before tobacco disappears from the fields. “I think its time is over,” said Mary Stacsh, who owns more than 400 acres on three farms but stopped growing tobacco this year. “For one thing, we won’t have any land to raise it on. And with all the talk about smoking, how can we survive?” Agricultural experts, however, aren’t as quick to dismiss the future of tobacco in the area. “I think we’ve leveled off,” Roche said. “No, there won’t be any more 60-acre growers. But people will keep planting a few acres each year. There will always be a demand for what Maryland has to offer.”

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Farmers agree that the demand, though reduced, probably will continue. Still, they say they can’t afford the labor to raise the crop.

Tobacco farmers have resisted mechanization more than any other crop grown in the area, Roche said. The seeds are hand-planted in carefully protected beds late in the winter, and transplanted to the fields in the spring. In the summer, the flower buds must be removed by hand.

In the late summer and fall, the plants must be cut down by hand and strung up in barns to cure and dry. After several weeks, the leaves must be stripped off the plants, graded and bundled, all by hand. The entire process takes about 14 months.

The USDA estimates that growing and harvesting an acre of tobacco takes an average of 230 worker-hours, compared with two to three worker-hours for one acre of corn. On the other hand, an acre of good tobacco can be worth $3,000 at auction, while an acre’s worth of corn may have a market value of less than $300.

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Stacsh said she couldn’t find enough labor to harvest her crop. “It’s dirty, sweaty work,” she said. “When they can work in McDonald’s, where it’s air-conditioned, and make the same money, why would anyone want to bother working tobacco?”

So like the other farmers, Stacsh has stopped planting her traditional 40 acres of tobacco. She’s also sold about 100 acres of her land to developers.

David Martin, agricultural extension agent for Anne Arundel County, said the recent tobacco auction proved that there’s more than demand at work on the market. In April, Maryland tobacco farmers enjoyed one of their best auction seasons in nearly a decade. Top-quality tobacco sold for about $1.60 per pound, close to the most recent peak years of 1981 and 1982. Despite the high prices, tobacco acreage continued to decline.

“If we don’t stop this process now, the whole support industry is going to go under,” Roche said. “It reminds me of the strawberry production on the Eastern Shore. In the 1920s, the shore had the world’s biggest production of strawberries. You’d never know that now.”

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Roche is working furiously to see that the produce market succeeds, for in it he sees the future of the tobacco farmers. “The writing’s on the wall,” he said. “It’s been there for 20 years. We’re got to get these farmers to diversify.”

Billy Hatfield of Huntingtown appreciates the effort. “I don’t want to dump my land. I’m a farmer. That’s all I know,” he said.

Hatfield has replaced his 60 acres of tobacco with produce and corn. He sold cucumbers and summer squash at the wholesale market last week. “This is going to help us a lot,” he said. “I’ve never sold wholesale before, but I guess I’ll get used to it.”


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