Healthy tobacco crops will curb development

Posted on July 22, 1999 at 23:11:52:

Traveling recently to, St. Clement's Island, the birthplace of Maryland, I passed what would seem to be an ideal site to develop. It had a gentle roll to it ending at the very edge of St. Clement's Bay with trees in all the right places. Knowing that we are the fastest growing region of the state, I wondered why it had not been plucked for development. The reason is tobacco.

But if a trend continues nationally as well as in Annapolis, tobacco fields may no longer adorn Southern Maryland. I am still dismayed that there is an unprecedented lack of support for the growers of this still very profitable crop.

The danger signs of dwindling tobacco profits are impossible to ignore. In a thriving economy, the price per pound of tobacco has fallen to $1.55 per pound. That's down from a high of $1.92 per pound in 1996.

Farmland in general in Southern Maryland is disappearing. Tom Fretz, dean of the University of Maryland School of Agriculture, recently reported to the Maryland Agriculture Commission that there are 2.2 million acres farmed in Maryland, but that those numbers will fall to approximately 1.7 million by 2020.

None of this bodes well for the future of agriculture and the way of life we enjoy in Southern Maryland.

One of our major achievements in the 1999 General Assembly session was procuring five percent of Maryland's share of the recent multi-billion tobacco settlement for Southern Maryland's farmers. After reluctantly agreeing to support this, Governor Glendening said flat out that he will not allow any of the settlement money to go towards subsidizing tobacco. But tobacco has never been subsidized by the federal, state or local governments. And now, a lot of people are assuming that this is the beginning of the end of tobacco farming in Maryland.

I'm not inclined to agree. I believe tobacco does -- or should -- have a future in Southern Maryland.
Yes, the price per pound of tobacco is down. But we must also remember that over the last two years, Mother Nature has not been kind to our tobacco crops with near-drought-like conditions. Weather is a roll of the dice, not a trend. Like winters that are sometimes cold, snowy and icy and others -- like the last two -- that are mild, summers have different characteristics. Some summers feature numerous showers -- not good for beach goers and softball players, but great for our tobacco farmers. The price per pound of tobacco in 1996 was high because the crop was so good. And those days can come again. There is simply no crop grown in Southern Maryland that comes anywhere close in profitability per acre harvested.

For instance, in 1998, corn, the second most profitable crop in Maryland, garnered $218 per acre. In the same year, tobacco brought in $2,170 per acre.

Don't get me wrong. I know how harmful tobacco is to one's health. The number of deaths from abuse of tobacco is stunning. And yet, it is still something legal that people enjoy. The market is not shrinking, but our farmers are worried and this is troublesome.

In order to save us from over-development, we have to find some way to save tobacco. It's one of the ways to preserve the land. There are some very good things about the five percent we are getting from the tobacco settlement. Many of the farmers that take advantage of transitioning from tobacco to other crops, are the ones who will benefit most.

On the surface, transitioning from tobacco to "alternative crops" seems the logical thing to do. The problem is: It isn't. Tobacco fields are more unique than traditional grain crops such as corn or wheat which spread over many more acres than tobacco. To profit from corn, wheat or soy beans, farmers need to have large fields because the price of the grain crop per acre is far less than the price per acre for tobacco.

This is a major reason why some tobacco farmers don't want to transition to anything else. Many have small tobacco farms that reap a large profit. They cannot hope to equal that same profit from any other crop.

I have heard more than one tobacco farmer tell me outright that if the product continues to devalue and politicians and lawyers continue to meddle to help this devaluation, they'll get out of the business altogether.

And once that happens, believe me, the developers are waiting to pounce. I'm amazed as I drive down Routes 4 and 301 and up Route 235 how much development is taking place on what used to be open fields and farmland. With development comes congestion. The ills of congestion are crowded roads which lead to more accidents, long lines at stores, loss of privacy and -- most precious of all -- the beautiful open space that makes Southern Maryland such a great place to live.

Here's another worrisome possibility: As tobacco products become more notorious, researchers are looking at other, positive ways to utilize this still-mysterious plant. What if one day researchers find that tobacco has a highly medicinal use or some other positive attribute? What will happen then, when we have no more tobacco farms? Or no one to grow it?

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