'Goodbye' tobacco, 'hello' cukes and corn

Tobacco states such as Maryland look to other crops, settlement funds to replace 'obnoxious weed.'

Connie Stuart says her farm will probably survive. It'll probably make it through this year's heavy rains, which have swelled and split the melons. It'll probably make it through the development in nearby La Plata, where construction is about to begin on a Wal-Mart.

And, says Ms. Stuart, the red-headed, pig-tailed boss here at Rose Hill Farm, they'll probably even survive the loss of their No. 1 one cash crop: tobacco.

But it won't be easy. Tobacco - or, as she calls it, "the obnoxious weed" - has been grown here for more than 300 years, dating at least back to 1675, when the local courthouse was built in exchange for 20,000 pounds of harvest.

Now, says Stuart, with the giant tobacco companies on the run, just about all the farmers in southern Maryland realize they will have to find new ways to coax a living out of the fertile land.

She will diversify - into sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, wheat, and green beans. She'll rent out horse stables and a few acres, keep the roadside store going, and sell Christmas trees in the winter.

She'll also rely on a new state program that is intended to, as Gov. Parris Glendening recently put it, "[close] the book on Maryland's history as a tobacco state."

For the next decade, Maryland will pay farmers about $9 million per year to kick the tobacco-growing habit. Each will receive $1 per pound of tobacco that they would normally grow - provided they plant an alternative crop.

The money will come from the 1998 settlement in which tobacco companies agreed to pay the states $206 billion. Maryland's share will be about $4 billion.

"There is no future for tobacco in southern Maryland," Stuart explains. "You can't find labor to work it, the political powers want it to go away, and cigarettes, as a health issue, are finished."

Other states are grappling with the same problem - how to support their farmers when the demand for tobacco declines. This year, total tobacco yields are expected to dip below 1 billion pounds for the first time in 80 years. Income estimates for the 2000 harvest are projected at about $1.5 billion, just over half the $2.7 billion US growers averaged between 1994 and 1999. North Carolina and Kentucky, which harvest over 65 percent of the US crop, have lost the most acreage.

But perhaps none is acting as boldly as Maryland.

"We do get a lot of calls asking about it," says Philip Gottwals, one of the architects of the Maryland program. "Folks are watching."

In North Carolina and Kentucky, buy-out programs are considered unrealistic - because they would be too expensive.

"The program would become massive if you tried to use it in those states," says Lee Dixon, the tobacco specialist at the National Conference of State Legislators. "In other states, like Ohio and Florida, it might be an option."

North Carolina and Kentucky each will use a high percentage of its settlement money to invest in less-direct measures to help the farmers - through education, job training, and research - to find other uses for tobacco.

THE states in the tobacco belt are trying to balance farm support with other cigarette-related concerns, including healthcare costs - the reason states were awarded the money in the first place - and education.

In Virginia, the state's entire first-year tobacco settlement will go to help farmers. No restrictions will be made there on what the farmers can or cannot grow.

Struggling tobacco farmers can also get help through federal programs, such as the Tobacco Loss Assistance Program, which will dole out an estimated $340 million this year.

But regardless of how much the government can help, the future of tobacco farming appears bleak, especially in Port Tobacco, which once rivaled Baltimore as the state's busiest port.

Although tobacco is cheap to plant - seeds are free in Maryland - it's labor intensive. With a high-flying economy, there's no one around the work the fields.

Besides, says Terry Goss, who gives tours of the local courthouse museum, "most of the land around here has been sold to developers."

While Stuart will be able to branch into other areas of business, some smaller independent farmers won't be so lucky.

Perhaps those hardest hit are the Amish, who produce about 15 percent of Maryland's yield. The entire state has an estimated 1,100 tobacco farmers.

On a recent hot afternoon, J.C. Swarey and five of nine children were harvesting what appeared to be a bountiful crop. They made their way along the rows, cutting it and pressing it into stacks. After growing a year and a half, the plants were about four-feet high, and gave off a sweet smell.

When asked if he was interested in the state buy-back program, Mr. Swarey said, "not at all. When the business dries up, I'll probably sell my land and move out of here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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