WASHINGTON – The state's tobacco buyout program (search) was supposed to cut production of the crop and help farmers ease into alternate crops.
It's achieved the first goal, pushing production from 8.3 million pounds five years ago to an all-time low of just over 2 million pounds this year, but experts say the second goal is still unmet.
"We have not found any . . . one commodity-type product to match tobacco," said Scott Rowe, an extension agent in Cecil County.
The buyout program began in 2001 with the promise of a decade-long subsidy to farmers who stopped growing tobacco, on the condition that their land remained in agricultural production for the years they received payments. The program had signed up 780 farmers as of this year, 77 percent of the eligible farmers in the state.
The average farmer gets $11,000 each year, said Christine Bergmark of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, but some get as much as $50,000 or as little as $30. It all depends on how much a farmer listed as his tobacco income in 1998, she said.
As long as they file taxes as farmers -- even if they list annual agricultural income of $500 or less -- they get the same payment for 10 years, Bergmark said.
Part of that money is supposed to help farmers transition into a new crop, but critics say some farmers, particularly older ones, are cashing the checks and little more.
"That's a lot of income to just sit back and take it easy while the money's rolling in," said David Myers, an extension agent in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. He said some farmers have used the subsidy payments as a sort of early retirement fund.
"It kind of became a loophole, if you will," Myers said.
Bergmark said the average tobacco grower is 62, older than the average Maryland farmer, who is about 56. Rowe said that if tobacco farmers are "looking at life expectancy in five or 10 years, people are not necessarily going to be looking into transitioning."
Buddy Hance, a fourth-generation tobacco farmer from Anne Arundel County, said that is not surprising.
"Some of them are too old to learn how to raise other crops," Hance said. He could not point to a trend but said he thought that some older farmers would probably give up the difficult task of replacing tobacco with another crop.
Hance did turn to another crop -- produce -- after taking the buyout last year. But he turned the majority of the work over to his son in the process.
Bergmark said farmers are making headway, especially in nursery stock and ethnic foods. New programs like Shore-to-Store (search) and Maryland's Best (search), a labeling program, are getting farmers' goods to larger markets, she said.
"Age is a factor but it's not a limitation," she said. She knows one farmer in his 80s who has bounced from crop to crop since he took the buyout, and is now successful with cut flowers.
Myers and other extension agents said they are working to help farmers, but the transition has not been a total success.
"Finding a niche market that you can exploit" has been a problem for farmers looking to transition into another crop, Rowe said.
"There's no alternative to tobacco," he said, adding that the farmers he knows are simply trying to increase production of crops they were already marketing in other seasons.
But even that has been difficult. In 2001, a market-trends analysis by the College of Southern Maryland found that farmers in the area felt they were "poorly served by production and marketing infrastructure in all agricultural sectors except tobacco."
Bergmark said that agricultural officials have been working to change that, to help farmers make a steady transition, but no followup studies have been done.
David Conrad, a Prince George's County extension agent and the state tobacco expert, said he does not know what to think.
"I drive by their farms and I don't see any changes, other than there's no tobacco there anymore," he said.