Tobacco farming gets boost on Shore


WILLISTON - Two years after Maryland began paying farmers more than $70 million to stop growing tobacco, the agricultural extension service is helping others who want to take up the crop.

Three dozen Eastern Shore farmers attended briefings this week where University of Maryland extension agents told them that the drought-resistant leaf could flourish in their sandy soil.

Tobacco could, the agents said, offer a way to branch out from corn and soybeans - dominant crops on a peninsula where the poultry industry provides a steady market for grain, but the crops need plenty of water.

The briefings come as the state is using a portion of its settlement with cigarette manufacturers to pay more than 700 Southern Maryland farmers not to grow tobacco during the next decade.

If there is a dichotomy or policy shift for state agricultural officials, it isn't apparent to David L. Conrad, the extension service's resident tobacco expert.

"It isn't illegal to raise tobacco," Conrad said. "Nobody's called and denounced us for doing our job, which is to help farmers. ... The [buyout] policy was a political decision. What we have now appears to be basic market factors at work. Obviously, the tobacco industry is not dead. The final chapter hasn't been written."

Brad Plutschak, a high school special-education teacher who, with his cousin Robert Karge, works their 100-year-old family farm near Preston, is eager to learn more about tobacco.

"We always have 200 to 300 acres in soybeans or corn," said Plutschak, who attended the session in this Caroline County crossroads. "We'll grow lima beans or peas under contract whenever we can get it, so this could be another way to diversify. It's an opportunity for us. It would be neat if our generation could get into something of our own, something new around here."

In Worcester County, one farmer planted seven acres of tobacco last summer and has leaves drying in a converted chicken house near Ocean City, ready for sale at traditional tobacco auction markets that begin March 25 in Southern Maryland.

"The irony is that here on the Shore, tobacco is a novelty, it's kind of exotic," says Laura Romaneo, Worcester's extension agent. "We seem to have good soil here and it can survive drought, especially if it's irrigated."

On the Shore's northern border in Cecil County, 18 tobacco farmers, most of them Amish families who have moved to escape spiraling farmland prices in Lancaster, Pa., met to talk about increasing their acreage to take advantage of continued demand for high-grade Maryland leaf.

"The Amish see tobacco as a cash crop to help pay their mortgages on farms they've bought here in the last five years or so," says extension agent Scott W. Rowe. "We have about 17 or 18 active growers in Cecil."

The bottom line, farmers say, is as old as commerce, as simple as supply and demand. With fewer than 300 Southern Maryland farmers still growing tobacco on fewer than 2,000 acres, demand remains high.

The math isn't difficult either, those in the industry say. Skilled growers can make $1,800 to $1,900 an acre.

"Clearly, there is demand, particularly for Maryland-style tobacco, particularly for the European market," says James Starkey, senior vice-president at Universal Leaf Tobacco in Richmond, Va. "The big questions are whether the soil is similar enough for it to have all the desirable characteristics that make it Maryland tobacco. Then there's a lack of expertise with this crop. There are hurdles to overcome, but there is potential."

In Southern Maryland, three tobacco auction warehouses are set to open this year, compared with five last season. Market owner Gilbert "Buddy" Bowling worries that the 3 million pounds of Maryland leaf expected to be brought to market this year - some of it affected by drought - might discourage buyers from American and European cigarette manufacturers.

"I think the Eastern Shore would be a great addition," Bowling says. "If we can't maintain the amount of tobacco we're getting now, we're in jeopardy of losing that European market. I think they're going to need a lot of advice, particularly in how to cure tobacco, but the Shore could be a real boost."

Farmers who have explored the possibilities - especially those who grow vegetable crops that can be started in greenhouses, then transplanted - are confident they can master the specifics of growing tobacco.

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