UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – At a weathered warehouse on the far side of town, a bit of theater is playing out. The drama: Maryland's annual tobacco auction — this year, only eight days long.
"(It) used to open in April and went up to the Fourth of July," said Kenneth Carr, a farmer who no longer grows tobacco.
Maryland is the only state in the nation with a tobacco buyout program that pays farmers not to grow the crop. But some farmers fear their centuries-old heritage is disappearing as a result.
Carr is one of hundreds who have volunteered to plant other crops instead in exchange for cash payments from the state. While he reluctantly made the decision not to farm tobacco any longer, he wanted to attend the auction with lifelong friends anyway.
"It's going out anyhow … tobacco is," Carr said. "What other product in the world that's on the market has as much against it as tobacco's got?"
The buyout program is "selling" well. Production is down drastically since it began in 2000. But farmers say they are paying a price.
"Whether or not they took the buyout, farmers are worried that the program will mean an end to a culture and a way of life that goes back hundreds of years," said Franklin Wood, a tobacco farmer participating in the buyout program.
"They were passing a life sentence on me. I could not participate in production or storage of tobacco, to even help my son or grandson if they chose to grow tobacco," he said.
Maryland is ahead of the game with the tobacco buyout program. Members of Congress are proposing legislation calling for a federal buyout program. It would allow farmers who hold the rights to grow tobacco under a federal quota system to accept payments to give up those rights.
Maryland's buyout money comes from the tobacco settlement of 1998. The idea was the brainchild of Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening.
"It seems to me to be illogical to spend money to fight against tobacco, and to continue to grow it as well," Glendening said.
Farmers concede that Maryland's tobacco was in trouble long before the buyout. Still, they had hoped to see their tradition passed along.
"I do want to farm," said David Cox, the son of a tobacco farmer. "Whether tobacco is still in production here, that's another story."