Maryland tobacco going up in smoke Autumn: Once a green cash crop, tobacco enters a sere and yellow time of public disapproval, coupled with a shortage of the labor needed to effect its long curing time.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HUGHESVILLE -- Steven Walter's father and uncles were only boys in those years when they began chopping the trees, pulling out the stumps with horses and hoes, and sawing the timber into boards and beams.

Then they tilled the cleared land, built barns and settled into the arduous annual cycle of planting, cutting, hanging, curing and stripping the aromatic four-foot leaves that slowly turn from green to gold.

Thus was a tobacco farm built from a forest in the 1930s; and at the age of 36, Walter now keeps the cycle going as he awaits the arrival of the next generation -- his first child, due on the Fourth of July.

But if little has changed about the way tobacco is farmed, the aggravations have become deeper and more complicated. Real estate developers buy neighboring farms, snap up local labor and offer the quick-buck temptation of a sellout. Federal and state governments add cigarette taxes, big lawsuits and further. No, Walter said, answering the question that reporters always ask, he doesn't smoke. And, yes, he'd prefer that his child never takes up the habit.

But why should tobacco farmers be considered outlaws, he asked, when they work hard with their own hands to grow a legal product, a livelihood that's as much a part of Maryland's heritage as the work of the Eastern Shore waterman and the Baltimore steelworker.

It is a question commonly heard these days among Southern Maryland's dwindling core of tobacco farmers, who find themselves battling popular opinion almost as much as the traditional scourges of nematodes, drought and blue mold. Nor were they particularly happy about last week's announced settlement of the lawsuit filed against cigarette manufacturers by 40 states, including their own.

"The state encouraged people to grow tobacco for hundreds of years, and now it's decided to jump on the bandwagon," Walter said, standing on a gravel road next to some of the 50 acres of tobacco on his family's farm.

Gilbert Bowling Sr., 63, who runs a nearby farm and owns the Hughesville tobacco warehouse, said: "The farmers feel that with all the commentary they hear on TV and the radio that they've done something illegal, and it's not."

Crab grass

But for all the nagging worries created by the adverse climate, the more practical and immediate problem has been created by the spread of Washington's bedroom communities, which for years have been creeping into rural Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties like suburban crab grass.

Bowling -- who does smoke and is proud of it, thank you -- pointed his smoldering cigar at various points along the horizon, saying, "You've got houses here, houses there and houses over there." And the construction to build those homes and the accompanying roads and shopping centers siphons off most of the labor pool once available to tobacco farmers.

That's crucial because tobacco is a labor-intensive crop. Whereas it might take, at the most, 10 worker hours to handle an acre of corn or soybeans, an acre of tobacco requires 225 to 250 hours, with the bulk of the work coming after harvest. That's when the plants are tied together and hung from sticks in curing barns. Then, some 60 days later, the leaves are stripped and bundled for auction, a process that often isn't complete until after Thanksgiving.

If you increase the cost of all that labor to compete with the better-paying construction jobs, or, worse, fail to come up with enough labor, profits dwindle or disappear, no matter the going price. Throw into this mix a bad year or two in the fields, and the situation quickly becomes perilous. Following a severe drought and an outbreak of blue mold in 1983, Bowling's warehouse lost about a third of its big customers -- about 20 in all.

Like the buffalo

"We really don't grow that much anymore in Southern Maryland," he said. "In Charles County, it's almost like the buffalo. They've shot us all."

Well, if it's such a hard way to make a living, not to mention unpopular, then why not switch to something easier, such as corn or soybeans? State health officials have been advocating it for years.

It's not that easy, tobacco farmers say. For all the extra labor, tobacco is also a big-time earner. That easy-to-raise corn will yield only about $325 to $350 an acre, compared to tobacco's $2,000 to $2,500, according to Maryland Department of Agriculture spokesman Tony Evans.

So, though Walter's farm now grows some 1,100 acres of watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkin, soybeans and wheat, it's those 50 acres of tobacco that make the difference between a comfortable household and a struggling one, he said. Nor would all the additional acreage have been possible without those crops of tobacco from the 1930s onward.

Still, the uncertainties of the business and the rising tide of negative opinion can make the offers from real estate agents sound better all the time.

"My wife's giving me hell for not selling," Bowling said, especially after he blew off an informal offer 15 years ago for $1.5 million for the family's 300-acre spread. "She says we're leaving something to the kids that's maybe too hard to handle."

Indeed, fewer and fewer choose to remain in the business as farms are handed down from one generation to the next. The state's 1964 tobacco acreage of 39,000 had dropped to 27,000 acres by 1982. The disastrous harvest of '83 and increasing real estate pressures reduced the total to its present 8,000, and, as Evans said, "the tobacco farmers are aging out."

Among the few younger tobacco farmers are Walter, 36, and Bowling's 40-year-old son, Gilbert Jr., or Buddy, as he's known. Both said they're not budging from their land anytime soon.

Walter said his family is simply too rooted to the place. He can't look across the gentle roll of their open fields without thinking of his father and his uncles, doing all that backbreaking work to clear and claim it all those years ago.

The junior Bowling understands such emotions, though he has already hedged his bets on the future, not only agriculturally by growing pumpkins but financially by holding a county job the past eight years as an agricultural administrator.

"I guess for somebody to continue farming, it has to be a family tradition, a part of your way of life," he said.

That feeling seems to have carried over to his eldest son, Gilbert III, who will soon turn 18. He's been farming his own 2.5 acres among the family's spread of tobacco. And if he ever reaches a point where the volume of the naysayers becomes bothersome, his grandfather, Gilbert Sr., has some advice:

"I've grown up over the years, I think, and I've decided why should I do verbal battle with them anymore. For years I listened to their side and they never listened to mine."

As for politicians, Gilbert Sr. lost his last remaining faith after William Donald Schaefer came through town during his first gubernatorial campaign in 1986.

"He gave a speech at the opening of the tobacco market. Then in '88 he turned tail and went in the other direction."

Perhaps it doesn't matter, he said, partly because much of Maryland's tobacco is sold to foreign buyers -- about 40 percent by weight and more than half in terms of revenue -- and partly because he figures the state and federal governments need tobacco and its revenues too much to run the farmers out of business for good.

BTC "Their Achilles' heel is: What are they going to do when they stop getting the tax," he said. "I'm proud of what I do, I admit it. And I smoke whenever I can."

Pub Date: 6/25/97

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