For more than 350 years, tobacco has been more than a crop in Southern Maryland. It has been a way of life, the backbone of the region's economy as recently as 20 years ago.
Today, farmers are struggling to decide whether to continue that tradition or let tobacco go the way of the horse and buggy by accepting a state offer to pay them not to grow tobacco anymore.
"It's a tough decision," said Robert L. Swann, who can trace his family's tobacco-farming heritage to the late 1600s. Swann is director of the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, which is handling the state's buyout program.
William Addison Jr. warned about 100 farmers who attended an information meeting late Monday night in Davidsonville that, although participation in the program is voluntary, it would likely be the end of tobacco in Maryland.
"Once this is implemented, there's no turning back," said Addison, who grows 12 acres of tobacco at a farm near Upper Marlboro and serves as secretary of the state Senate.
He said European tobacco buyers have told him they need a minimum amount of tobacco for them to show up at the annual spring auction.
Maryland is using 5 percent of the money it received from the national settlement with the nation's cigarette manufacturers to pay farmers to get out of the tobacco business
Under terms of the state offer, farmers will be paid $1 a pound for 10 years. Poundage is based on their average sales in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
"You act like we are shoving this down your throat," Earl Hance, head of the state Tobacco Authority and chairman of the committee that negotiated the buyout settlement with the state," told the gathering. "If you don't want it, don't take it."
But Jeff Griffith, a 40 year old tobacco grower from Lothian, said, "Once there's a buyout, there is no market. So you are kind of like shoving it down our throats."
Griffith, like some of the other growers at the meeting, would prefer not to take the buyout. "I'm too young to retire," he said. But he feels that he might be forced to do so if most of the other farmers do because the supply of tobacco grown in the state would be too small to attract buyers, especially the Europeans who take the best quality leaf and pay the highest price.
The sign-up period for the buyout is expected to begin next month and continue through November. Swann said farmers should not feel pressured "We would rather see each farmer make a decision on their own," he said.
The meeting was the first of four scheduled by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission to provide farmers with details of the state's buyout offer. Farmers at the meeting expressed concern about the state's funding the program for 10 years. Hance said that if for some reason payments were not forthcoming, the contracts would be voided and they could resume growing tobacco. He also warned that farmers who broke the contract would be required to pay back the money, along with any legal fees, plus 6 percent interest.
Hagner R. Mister, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said he expects the state to make its first annual payments to farmers in January.
Hance estimated that 75 percent of the farmers at the Monday meeting will accept the buyout.