Md. tobacco farms see cloudy horizon Livelihood: State farmers expect a bumper crop, provided damp weather doesn't interfere. But more threatening are a cloud of lawsuits and possible U.S. regulation.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Earl Griffith, tobacco grower, surveyed the acres yet to be harvested, the red-brown leaves curing in the barn and the thunderheads massed on the horizon.

"There's nothing in the world that I can see that is wrong with this crop," he said, a smile sneaking across his face as he admired a leaf's papery thinness. "If we just don't get too much rain for the next two weeks."

The Maryland tobacco crop, which is about 85 percent harvested, promises to deliver in bumper proportions this year -- as long as damp weather does not intrude. But just as Griffith worries about rain, the entire industry is clouded by lawsuits, investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, threats of more federal regulation and the social stigma that comes with being this political season's whipping boy.

Among the problems, 15 states -- including Maryland -- have sued the major tobacco companies to seek reimbursement for Medicaid dollars spent treating people sickened by smoking. Class-action suits allege that the cigarette makers produced an intentionally addictive product to keep smokers hooked.

President Clinton has ordered federal regulations aimed at curbing the youth market that, among other things, limit the location of cigarette vending machines (out of reach of children) and the placement of advertising billboards (away from schools), and that in two years would forbid tobacco companies from using their brand names to sponsor sporting events.

The Food and Drug Administration's efforts to declare tobacco a drug and regulate it accordingly, if upheld by the court, could result, in the most extreme measure, in an outright ban.

Add to all that the flurry of anti-smoking ordinances, and the growers -- the little guys at the bottom of a $47 billion retail totem pole -- are "fed up and tired," as Gilbert "Buddy" Bowling Sr., a Charles County grower and owner of the Hughesville Tobacco Warehouse, puts it.

"Here we have a state that grows tobacco and our governor and attorney general want to sue the tobacco industry," Bowling said.

Maryland produces 12 million pounds of tobacco a year, worth about $20 million annually -- a significant crop to the state but a tiny portion of the 1 billion pounds produced nationally.

About 80 percent of the state's tobacco is sold to Italy, Germany and Switzerland, where it is prized for its high quality, thinness of leaf and low nicotine content. Because of that strength in the overseas market, Maryland growers say they are less threatened by federal regulation than are their fellow growers in Virginia, North Carolina and other states that feed the domestic market.

But they worry, nevertheless, about the climate of increased government oversight and control, and say that such regulation cannot be a good thing.

Likewise, they find governmental attacks on an industry that generates $13 billion annually in federal, state and local excise taxes infuriating and ironic.

"The tobacco industry is a big industry," said David Conrad, an extension regional tobacco specialist for the Central Maryland Research and Education Center, Upper Marlboro Facility. "If [Clinton] thought that legislating tobacco would kill the industry, he wouldn't do it."

For Southern Marylanders, tobacco is a sentimental as well as lucrative crop, celebrated at county fairs and spring auction houses. The Charles County Fair last week crowned its 61st Queen Nicotina and woe be to the politically correct who might dare to challenge the name, which, as fair president Ann Davis explains, derives from the "beautiful yellow blossom" of the tobacco plant.

Maryland tobacco production has held steady for the past five years, although it is a declining industry. At its recent peak, in the early 1980s -- before the famously bad crop of 1983 -- Maryland produced 35 million pounds of tobacco annually, or about three times its current yield.

Suburban sprawl, coupled with skyrocketing land prices, and increased labor costs have nicked away at the farmers' terrain and profit margins. The average tobacco farm is about 10 acres, with about 1,200 growers at work in the five counties of Southern Maryland.

Many growers, as Gary Hodge, an adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, notes, have diversified their crops or have taken full-time jobs to supplement the income once provided by tobacco.

Griffith, with 65 of his 370 Anne Arundel County acres in tobacco, has one of the region's larger crops. He and his son still plant, cultivate, harvest and sort tobacco much as it was done 200 years ago -- by hand. Labor costs across Southern Maryland average from $7 to $9 an hour, when growers are able to find workers who are willing to cut the tobacco (with long knives), spear the leaves (on steel-tipped poles) and hang the drying plants (on barn rafters sometimes 30 feet high).

On this particular morning when the early rain has left the plants too damp and fragile to cut, Griffith has sent 10 men home for the day. "It takes 250 man-hours per acre to raise tobacco," Griffith said. "We're not getting the money for tobacco that we were about 10 years ago, but it's still the best thing that we have."

A good acre can produce a gross income of between $1,200 and $1,500, depending upon the quality of the leaf and the market price, growers say. Soybeans, by contrast, can generate about $400 in gross income per acre. The labor and other costs for tobacco, however, are much higher than for other crops.

In Charles County, Bowling and his son raise 9 acres of tobacco -- down from 36 acres years ago. Last year he moved 1.85 million pounds of tobacco through his warehouse, the third largest in the state. But even in a good year such as this one, when the price could go above $1.72 per pound and it's not absurd to hope for $2 a pound, Bowling remains pessimistic about the future of an industry that has fed his family since the 1800s.

He encouraged his son, Gilbert Bowling Jr., a fellow member of the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, to take a full-time job; the warehouse is an antique and flea market nine months of the year.

"My son has a full-time job because I didn't see the future in tobacco to be overwhelming," Bowling said. "I suspect that he will be the last generation of the family to be in tobacco."

The financial aspects of the business, too, are not the only concern for many farmers. They struggle to reconcile the dollars with the social and moral implications of raising a crop that, while legal, is said to kill people.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 419,000 people die annually from cancer caused by smoking, and the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment says that cigarettes cost the country $68 billion annually in tobacco-related health care costs -- numbers that are not lost on tobacco growers.

Most of the growers interviewed for this article do not smoke or chew tobacco, and all said that they do not want their children or grandchildren to adopt the habit. Jeff Griffith farms enthusiastically alongside his father, but because he suffers from asthma, he cannot be in closed spaces with smokers.

"Farmers are salt-of-the earth people and it bothers them to think that they might be growing something that hurts people," said Bowling, who occasionally puffs on a cigar. "But people also have a choice."

Invariably, growers talk about individual freedom and few say that they believe tobacco is necessarily addictive or fatal. Rather, they say, they grow a crop -- no different than the grain and barley fermented to make alcohol -- that people can use or not.

It is the kind of outlook that is necessary to grow tobacco, a crop that provides not only a living, but a way of life.

"I've been doing this my 60 years except for the two years when I was in the service," said Earl Griffith. "If they cut us back, what am I supposed to do? This is all I know."

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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