Maryland officials say tobacco farmers are preparing to sell the smallest crop recorded in state history and that this year's annual tobacco auction could be the last.

In a three-day auction starting March 21, farmers are expected to sell 300,000 pounds of tobacco, compared to 1.4 million pounds last year, and 12.7 million pounds in 1992, said David Conrad, a tobacco specialist with the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Maryland's tobacco crop has been sharply declining since former Gov. Parris N. Glendening spearheaded a program in 1999 that gives tobacco farmers money to voluntarily stop growing the crop. They must grow an alternative crop in its place.

The buyout program, funded by the state's Cigarette Restitution Fund, was designed to end tobacco production and decrease sales of the cancer-causing product. Farmers who stop producing tobacco to take the 10-year buyout receive $1 for every pound of tobacco they would have produced.

Some in the industry, including Ray Hutchins, executive secretary of the Maryland Tobacco Authority, have speculated that the auction this month at Farmers warehouse in Hughesville could be Maryland's last, and that attendance by buyers will be sparse. It's the warehouse owners' call on whether or not they'll open again.

"With that little bit of tobacco, I don't see there'll be more than three buyers" this year, Hutchins said. A few years ago as many as six buyers attended, he said.

The owner of a second warehouse in Hughesville, Gilbert Bowling Sr., said he will not open this year. Last year he did.

"I don't feel there's enough tobacco to warrant me to open and the other one to open, too," Bowling said. "There's not enough for the both of us."

Warehouse owners make a commission from the tobacco sold at auction, but because profits have been decreasing, "the commission isn't enough to pay the property tax, fire insurance, labor," Conrad said.

As of February, 854 Maryland tobacco farmers, representing nearly 7.65 million pounds of tobacco, had signed up for the buyout, according to the Maryland Tobacco Authority.
About 150 tobacco farmers remain in the state; about 90 percent of them are Amish or Mennonite, Conrad said. He said if they continue to grow the crop after the auctions in Maryland end, they could sell directly to Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette company.

Not all farmers sell tobacco every year and some grow as little as seven acres, Conrad said. Many farmers grow tobacco in addition to other crops. Most of the tobacco being grown in Maryland is now found in St. Mary's, Charles and Cecil counties, Conrad said.

He said he does not anticipate the decline in tobacco production to have a drastic affect on the state's economy. "Over the years the position of tobacco from the standpoint of contributing to total agriculture has become less and less important," he said. "As [the tobacco] economy has weakened, others have strengthened."

Maryland sold a gross total of $19.9 million worth of tobacco in 1997 - about 1.5 percent of all agricultural sales in the state. By 2002, that figure had dropped to $2.7 million, making tobacco sales only 0.2 percent of the total for Maryland agriculture, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, nursery and greenhouse products increased in importance, moving from 9 percent to 14.6 percent of the total agricultural sales in Maryland in those five years, USDA data shows. Conrad said some farmers have also turned their land into tourist spots, featuring hayrides and corn mazes.

Poultry and eggs were the top-grossing agricultural products in the state in 2002, making up 45 percent of agricultural sales.

Hutchins said the tobacco buyout has helped the older farmers retire with some money as they left the industry.

"In a way the buyout was good, because most young ones just didn't want to farm," he said. "They could make more money out somewhere with easier work."

Hutchins said he stopped growing tobacco before the buyout - when the cost of production became prohibitive. "I just couldn't get the labor to handle it," he said.

Norman Bennett, director of the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, estimates that 1,000 acres or less still exists in tobacco production. In the mid-'90s, Southern Maryland cultivated 7,000 to 10,000 acres of tobacco farmland, he said.

Still, he said, "It's an important part of the identity of Maryland."

The Capital News Service contributed to this story.