- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2001

CROOM — During the last few years that he farmed tobacco, John S. Ellis grew the broad-leafed crop on only 55 of the 700 acres he worked in Southern Maryland.
That small patch of land was worth more than the rows of corn and soybean that covered the rest of the property.
"Those 55 acres were more profitable than the remaining 645 combined," he said.
But sagging prices and the stress of raising the labor-intensive crop persuaded Mr. Ellis to join 673 other Maryland farmers, or 68 percent of the state's 990 eligible tobacco farmers, who have signed up or applied for a tobacco buyback program.
That figure far surpasses the expectations of government officials, who set out a year ago to eradicate the crop that was grown in Southern Maryland for more than 300 years.
The $78 million program, funded in part by Maryland's $4.2 billion settlement with tobacco companies, pays eligible farmers not to grow tobacco for the next 10 years.
"We are turning our back on tobacco, not the farmers," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday as he announced the latest buyout figures.
Maryland is the only state using its tobacco settlement funds to buy out farmers, he said.
The 559 farmers who signed buyout contracts last year and the 115 who applied this year account for 6.6 million pounds of tobacco leaf, or 80 percent of the 8.2 million pounds of tobacco eligible for the buyout.
Only 1,700 acres in the state are being used for tobacco this year, down 70 percent from the 5,700 acres farmers planted last year.
The state had expected about 60 percent of tobacco farmers to take part in the buyout.
Farmers will be paid $1 per pound annually for the next 10 years, based on the average amount of tobacco they grew between 1996 and 1998. To be eligible, a farmer had to grow tobacco in 1998.
Many farmers were skeptical that the state could guarantee the payments for the 10-year life of the buyout. But a bond program passed by the General Assembly this year ensuring the payments convinced most farmers to sign contracts.
Farmers also can receive a 10 percent bonus on their settlement if they agree to put their land into agricultural land preservation.
A program to help farmers convert their land to crops like flowers, vegetables or grapes has met a mixed response, said Port Republic farmer Earl "Buddy" Hance.
"We haven't seen many alternative crops yet," he said. "Farmers want to be certain when they get into new crops. They've got to find a market before they jump into anything."

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