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Gavel is falling on the money crop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HUGHESVILLE -- In the early years, the opening of Maryland's annual tobacco auction was a time of celebration. There were parties and dances. Little ones stayed home from school to catch the first day of the market.

The best part of all? The cash. For growers, who had labored all year long doing the arduous work of harvesting, stripping and baling the loose-leaf tobacco that would become cigarettes, the start of the months-long auction meant it would finally be payday.

Next month, however, the Maryland tobacco auction could open for the last time, ending a tradition that dates back to the 1930s.

In the 1950s, more than 40 million pounds of tobacco were sold at auctions in Southern Maryland. In 2001, the year many started predicting the auction's extinction, 8 million pounds were sold over a month. Five years later, the traditional way of selling Maryland tobacco is alive, if barely. An estimated 300,000 pounds will go on the auction block for three days beginning March 21. In tobacco's heyday, that paltry amount could have been sold on a single day before lunch.

"You can never say never, but it would certainly appear the end is near," said former tobacco farmer Earl "Buddy" Hance, chairman of the Maryland Tobacco Authority, which has regulated the auction system since the 1940s.

Tobacco once reigned as the "money crop" in these parts, an important piece of the agricultural picture in Southern Maryland. But it has lost its stature in recent years. And the reversal has been completely intentional.

Under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the state began a 10-year buyout of tobacco farmers in 2000, paying them in exchange for promises that they would stop growing a plant widely known to cause cancer as it goes up in smoke.

Of the farmers eligible for the buyout, 83 percent took the checks, thereby also taking millions of pounds of Maryland tobacco out of circulation. So little Maryland tobacco is grown that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stopped collecting statistics on the crop. Farmers now raise soybeans or nursery plants or Christmas trees in the old tobacco fields.

Last year's prices were the worst since 1984, when some growers packed up their crop and returned it to their barns unsold rather than part with it for next to nothing.

"We had a great industry founded in 1634 in Maryland. ... It was a part of our culture and heritage, and I hate to see it go," said Franklin Wood, a 71-year-old farmer who plans to bring to the auction Maryland tobacco harvested from six of his acres near Huntingtown. He refused to take the buyout, saying the freedom to choose what he grows on his own land was not for sale.

Tobacco production is down nationwide, falling 27 percent last year, according to Thomas Capehart, a senior economist with the Economic Research Service of the USDA. The crop is at its lowest level since 1879.

Maryland's two remaining tobacco auction house owners predict that there won't be much profit for them this year - last year, prices were low, and the commission is just 5 percent - and whatever money is made will be divided between them. Pat Bowling, who co-owns the Farmers Tobacco Warehouse here, is prepared to open anyway. But his competitor and distant cousin, who owns the other auction house, sounds more noncommittal, pointing out that only one buyer has signed on.

"With that small of an amount of tobacco, neither warehouse really wants to open," Hance said. "One's sort of waiting for the other to say no."

Still, there was Gilbert "Buddy" Bowling Sr. one morning last week walking through his chilly Hughesville Tobacco Warehouse, a vast wooden structure with high ceilings and an acre of space under its pitched roof. Banners and signs from auctions past dot beams here and there, but this time of year Bowling uses the room for little more than weekend flea markets.

Soon, though, trucks carrying the tobacco should be arriving at Bowling's warehouse. That is, if he doesn't change his mind about holding his auction, which has been conducted here every year since shortly after the barn was completed in 1938.

"The question is: Is it viable financially to operate a business for that small amount of pounds? That's a decision I'm kicking around right now," he said.

He was sitting in his office, with its spare metal office furniture and cinderblock walls that have developed stress fractures in recent years. The once-country road outside now carries more heavy traffic and even jams up at rush hour. It runs straight through a region known as much for new homes sprouting up as for what has long grown on its farms.

If the state buyout put Maryland tobacco on its deathbed, a federal one might be what finally pulls the plug here. That buyout was not available to the state's growers, but it changed the rules governing tobacco production in the U.S. and allows farmers to grow any kind of tobacco they choose.

As a result, many remaining growers are shifting away from Maryland tobacco - a specific variety noted for its slow burning and used as an additive in foreign cigarettes - to burley tobacco, which is more in demand in the U.S. and is not sold at auction. Farmers are signing contracts directly with tobacco companies whereby they agree to an upfront, somewhat lower price instead of being left to worry about a fickle market.

S. L. Brady is one of the tobacco-farming holdouts in Calvert County. This year, he is growing 11 acres of Maryland tobacco headed for the auction in Hughesville and 14 acres of burley tobacco earmarked for Philip Morris.

He got such a poor price at last year's auction that he sometimes wonders why he grew it again.

"We may be ignorant," said the 33-year-old farmer, who was born into the land his father and uncle worked before him. "We grew some more."

This is the last year he'll be growing Maryland tobacco. He's pretty sure of that, even though he thinks this year's crop is among the best quality he has produced. He puts the chances that there'll even be an auction next year at 5 percent. "They'd be a damn fool to grow it for the prices [buyers] will pay for it," Brady said of his fellow farmers.

He talks as if he has no qualms about giving up the crop, but the auction, "it'll be something that I'll miss."

"It was the greatest thing in the world when I was a boy," he said.

Still, as a farmer, "it could get you crazy. ... The tobacco market was a great thing when it was selling good, and it could drive you crazy when it wasn't. It would make you scratch your head. It would make you cry."

Walter Wilkerson has been an auctioneer at tobacco auctions in Maryland since 1964. He used to arrive from his North Carolina home in late March and stay through the Fourth of July, there was so much tobacco to sell.

He would travel from one tobacco-growing state to the next, working for more than 10 months out of the year. Now auctions have fallen out of favor - and auctioneers are a rarity. Even where auctions are still in business, many have become computerized and have phased out people such as Wilkerson.

"I never thought I'd see [the end of the auction]," he said. "Of course, everything changes."

Seventy-two years old, Wilkerson doesn't need tobacco as he once did. He could slide into retirement and not worry about the disappearance of the money crop.

"It's served its purpose for me," he said.

"It's time to get out for sure, but you hate for someone to push you out. You want to leave of your own accord."

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

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