- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

"Selling time," yells Bob Cage, the 78-year-old tobacco auctioneer, signaling the beginning of the day's bidding at the Planter's Tobacco Warehouse in Upper Marlboro.
Mr. Cage has been at the center of Maryland's annual tobacco auction for 50 years, he says, and his rising and falling singsong voice announces the prices with a fluidity borne of experience.
But Mr. Cage and the tobacco auctions a Southern Maryland tradition since 1939 may soon be obsolete, as the Maryland tobacco industry is pushed toward extinction by the state's buyout program.
The buyout program's purpose is to "transition Maryland farmers out of tobacco production into more profitable and life-sustaining crops, while preserving rural-agriculture in Southern Maryland," according to the Web site of the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, a regional planning and development agency.
Yet there are a lot of farmers who don't know what they'll do without tobacco.
"Everybody's scratching their head, wondering what to do," said S.L. Brady of Chaneyville, who doesn't yet know whether he'll sign up for the buyout.
A young farmer at 29, Mr. Brady grew 35 acres of tobacco this season, making him one of the larger producers of tobacco in the state, he said. At one time, the largest individual tobacco producers farmed around 130 acres per year, Mr. Brady said.
The consensus around the tobacco auction is that the state buyout program is a mixed bag. Most agree that it has benefits for older farmers who could never have switched to another crop and will take the money from the state as a pension.
Most also say that the buyout is a terrible thing for younger tobacco farmers, especially those with smaller farms.
The buyout promises each farmer 10 annual payments of $1 a pound for their annual harvest, based on an average from their 1996, 1997 and 1998 crop returns.
For younger farmers with few acres, that money will not last long. Tobacco is about the only crop that can sustain a small farm, many farmers say. According to Mr. Brady, tobacco fetches $2,500 in revenue per acre, compared with $120 per acre for soybeans and $130 per acre for corn.
"No matter what anybody tells you, that's the cash crop for Southern Maryland. That's what pays the bills," Mr. Brady said.
"They better invest what money they get wisely," said Bill Eversfield, 47, of Friendship, Md., "because after 10 years is over, that's it."
Mr. Eversfield laughingly called himself a "part-time farmer and a part-time soccer mom," because he farms 8 acres of tobacco and helps with the kids at home the rest of the time. His wife has a job that pays well, he said.
Tobacco will be hard to replace, Mr. Eversfield said.
"I don't think they're gonna figure anything out that's a better money producer than tobacco," he said. "A lot of farms around here are small. It's not like Nebraska.
"People have to make a living with the land they have. I don't see how you can replace tobacco with wheat or soybeans. You just can't do it."
Mr. Eversfield said he will probably have to take the buyout in the next two years, before the state's offer ends.
"I hate to do it," he said, "but if you try to ride it out and the market's gone, you've lost your crop and you get no money."
Though he will continue to farm on the side, Mr. Eversfield said, "I guess I'll find a job somewhere."
Of the 995 certified tobacco growers in Maryland, 723 have applied for the buyout program; 659 of those have returned signed contracts to participate.
The buyout program is being funded by $4.4 billion from the Master Settlement Agreement, reached in 1998 between attorneys general for 46 states and the largest tobacco companies to settle all the state lawsuits seeking to recover the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses.
Though tobacco has long helped define Southern Maryland, the state is a small player in the market. The state's tobacco production, which reached 38 million pounds in 1982, is not expected to top 3.5 million pounds this year, Mr. Cage said.
The auction, which used to stretch into the summer, now lasts only a couple weeks.
The auction used to be a highly anticipated social gathering. Yesterday roughly 100 farmers most of them men were out at the barnlike warehouse, which was redolent with the rich smell of dried tobacco leaves.
The men dressed in boots, well-worn ball caps and earth-smeared work pants often communicated by mutters and grunts. When they spoke loudly enough to be heard, it was with a distinct Southern twang.
All business was done with paper and pen.
The average selling price has been $1.74 per pound, but yesterday many tobacco stacks sold for much less; $1.40 per pound was commonplace, and some even sold for only 50 cents per pound.
Mr. Cage moved down the aisles of tobacco, calling out the prices in a voice intelligible only to those around him. Buyers from Philip Morris and Dimon Inc. walked on the other side of the stacks, indicating with hand signals and code words whether they wished to buy or not.
Once they had moved on, farmers came behind to look at what the tobacco had sold for, if it had sold at all.
All too often, it had not sold, or the price was so low that the farmer rejected the bid.
"I hate to see things come to an end, just for tradition's sake," Mr. Eversfield said. "But I guess you can't get in the way of progress."


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