Southern Maryland tobacco growers might receive as much as $40 million from a proposed $5.15 billion trust fund set up by U.S. cigarette makers to aid farmers, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday.
Curran made the announcement after returning from a meeting in Raleigh, N.C., with tobacco industry representatives and officials of other tobacco producing states.
The exact amount coming to Maryland needs to be worked out, Curran noted, "but it may be in the area of $40 million."
Plans for the trust fund were disclosed two weeks ago, but it was not clear then whether Maryland would be included.
"It was good that we went" to the Raleigh meeting, said Curran. "We have made sure that Maryland is included." He was accompanied by state Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts.
"We wanted to make certain that our farmers, who have been growing tobacco for centuries, were treated the same as those in North Carolina and Kentucky," Curran said.
There was confusion over whether the trust fund would apply to states, like Maryland and Pennsylvania, that are not part of a tobacco quota system in which the federal government pays farmers to limit their production. Maryland farmers voted to drop out of the quota program 10 years ago.
"That's great," said Earl Hance, a Calvert County tobacco grower. "We hope we get some of the money into growers' hands and keep it out of the government's hands."
Hance said the fund could be a big help to state growers whose crops were seriously damaged by a severe drought last summer.
The trust fund's purpose is to aid tobacco farmers who are expected to experience a financial squeeze by the higher cigarette prices and curbs on tobacco promotion that are part of the national settlement.
Curran said that Maryland's approximately 1,000 tobacco farmers might also receive some financial assistance from the state's $4.2 billion share of a $206 billion settlement negotiated in November between the tobacco companies and 46 states.
"Farmers could receive funds from both," Curran said. "That's up to the legislature."
Gary V. Hodge, the former executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland and an adviser to the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, said that a push is being made for tobacco growers to get a slice of the state's $4.2 billion settlement.
Hodge participated in a meeting yesterday with the Southern Maryland delegation of the General Assembly. He said a bill is being drafted that will allocate funds from the state's $4.2 billion to assist growers and help preserve an industry dating back to shortly after the first settlers landed at St. Clement's Island in 1634.
Hodge said it has not been determined how much of the settlement the bill will seek, "but we're not talking about the 15 percent to 25 percent" that farmers said they wanted at a growers' meeting in Prince Frederick last week.
Hodge called the "side agreement" with the tobacco companies good news, but he said that it would not provide enough to safeguard the future of agriculture in Southern Maryland.
Although Maryland production has been declining in recent years and accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation's annual tobacco harvest, it is considered the backbone of Southern Maryland's agricultural economy.
According to Hodge, two-thirds of the total agriculture value in Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties comes from tobacco.
Curran said state farmers would have to show a loss income resulting from the national settlement to qualify for assistance from the tobacco companies' trust fund.
Pub Date: 2/06/99