HUGHESVILLE - Standing chest-high, with their orange, trumpet-shaped flowers, Steven H. Walter's tobacco plants haven't looked this healthy in years.
Nature has smiled on Southern Maryland's lush, green tobacco fields this spring and summer. But the 39-year-old Charles County farmer sees little reason to celebrate as he prepares to harvest the region's traditional cash crop in the next few weeks.
No matter how bountiful it turns out to be, this year's harvest is shaping up to be the last for Walter and for most of Southern Maryland's tobacco growers.
The government has made them an offer many feel they can't afford to refuse, even if it means the end of an industry that has shaped the region's culture and economy for 360 years.
"If they pay me to go out, I'm gone," says Walter, who with his aging father and uncle raises 30 acres of tobacco on their 600-acre farm.
"It's too iffy anymore," he says, leaning on a hoe and peering at a cloudy horizon.
The state is offering to pay tobacco farmers to switch to another crop, using some of the $4 billion that Maryland expects to collect from a national lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers.
Weary of farm labor shortages, legal and political assaults on smoking, and slipping prices, the state's tobacco growers see the buyout as a graceful way to jump from a sinking industry.
"We've gotten discouraged and disgusted," says Walter, who is president of the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, a growers' group formed to promote their product.
"You can only fight a battle for so long. ... You've got to make a living," he said.
Two-thirds of 406 tobacco farmers who responded to a survey recently said they would take the state's money to try growing other crops.
Applications aren't due until fall, but at that rate, the buyout pot of $5 million for next year won't be big enough. State officials are mulling how to accommodate the groundswell to get out.
"I don't think anybody expected to get a response of this nature," says Bobby Swann, director of the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, which is to handle the buyouts.
Despite earlier government efforts to convert growers to other crops, Swann says, "it's been very difficult to wean farmers away from something that's been a 300-year [tradition] in this area, where people and their families spent lifetimes raising tobacco."
Tobacco has flavored life in Southern Maryland since shortly after English colonists settled in St. Mary's County in 1635. Unrepentant in the face of today's anti-smoking crusades, Charles still crowns a teen-age "Queen Nicotina" every year at its county fair.
But the crop's hold on the region's economy has slipped: harvests have declined from a peak of 46 million pounds statewide in 1946 to 9 million pounds last year.
The amount of land planted in tobacco in Calvert, Charles, St. Mary's, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties likewise has shrunk, from 50,000 acres just after World War II to 6,500 acres now.
Invasion of suburbia
Farming of all types is in retreat in Southern Maryland, as forests and fields give way to sprawling suburban development. Difficulties finding laborers for the grueling harvesting, curing and stripping of tobacco also have hampered many growers.
"This was all tobacco country," says Walter, when his father and uncle helped carve the family farm out of the forest in the 1930s.
They tried to make a go of it growing strawberries and asparagus but soon joined their neighbors. Their tobacco plot has shrunk in recent years, Walter says, and with his elders now in their 70s, the family has had to rely on Mexican farm hands.
For those farmers who have stuck with it, tobacco has remained - until recently, at least - one of the few crops they could count on amid the fickleness of weather and commodity markets.
Though Maryland produces only a fraction of the tobacco grown in such states as North Carolina and Kentucky, it is in demand by Swiss cigarette manufacturers, who regularly buy most of the harvest and help supply free seed to growers.
The average price paid for Maryland tobacco, $1.92 a pound in 1997, has declined. Though growers at this spring's auction were getting as much as $1.77 a pound, by the end some were offered only 40 cents a pound - a precipitous drop that some took as an omen of worse to come.
"A farmer can take a few burdens of tobacco at 40 cents [a pound]," says state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and a grower himself. "But those farmers that had a lot of tobacco at the end, that's devastating to them."
Another factor in the buyout's appeal is the farmers' advancing age - 62, on average. For many of them, the money might help ease them into retirement.
Under the plan worked out between Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly, farmers would be paid $1 per pound of tobacco they do not grow, with the total payment based on their average harvests over the past three years.
The average farmer could expect an annual payment of $20,000 a year, for the next 10 years, according to Swann. That should keep farmers going as they try to find other profitable crops to grow, officials say.
To get the money, the farmer would have to sign a contract promising to keep his land in agriculture for the duration - an attempt to fend off development pressures that might gobble up tobacco fields left fallow.
But growers and officials are still pondering how firmly they can insist on keeping land in cultivation if it is being farmed by tenants. The buyout is to go to the grower, not to the owner of the land.
Not everyone is willing to give up on tobacco. Amish and Mennonite farmers traditionally shun government programs, Swann noted, and some of the largest growers might also stick it out.
About 4 percent of those surveyed indicated they were not interested in the buyout, while 4 percent wanted to try a gradual transition to other crops and 26 percent said they wanted more information.
The annual spring auction also could be history. Though some cigarette manufacturers have begun contracting with individual farmers to produce tobacco, the industry also has been subsidizing attempts to grow the crop in Brazil and other parts of the world.
"There are some farmers who don't like the idea [of the buyout]," says Steve Walter. "But it's better than getting forced out and getting nothing."
If the vast majority of Southern Maryland's farmers choose to take the buyout this fall, the money set aside for the program will fall short.
Swann said extra buyout money might be obtained by siphoning off the $3 million in the tobacco lawsuit settlement now earmarked for helping farmers grow other crops or the $3 million targeted for agricultural land preservation. But Middleton, who helped push the buyout through the legislature, opposes that.
"The other programs are what we need in order to help diversify agriculture," he says. "If all the money's got to go into [buyouts], we're going to be shortchanged."
Middleton wants the state to come up with more money for buyouts.
Change of heart
Glendening, who has reserved the bulk of the tobacco settlement for cancer research and prevention, initially indicated he would oppose increasing the funding for buyouts.
But Michelle Byrnie, his press secretary, said last week that he would work with legislative leaders to find more money if needed.
"He welcomes this problem," Byrnie said. "The objective is to end tobacco farming in Maryland." But, she added, "This is not just about moving farmers to other crops. It's about preserving open space and maintaining farming as a way of life."
Despite the state's efforts to help farmers kick their tobacco habit, Walter is dubious about the future of farming, with or without the golden weed.
"Up until the last few years we've made a pretty decent living on the farm," he says. "But I'll tell you, the last few years it has stunk, and I don't really see it getting any better."
Of the 1,000 acres they cultivate on their farm and on rented land, half is in soybeans, while corn and wheat cover much of the rest. Crops withered in droughts in 1998 and 1999, and even with better weather this year, grain prices remain badly depressed because of a worldwide glut.
"We were always looking for a way to get out of tobacco and never could," Walter says. He says he hopes his 3-year-old son steers clear of farming when he grows up. "There's no real future in it."