HUGHESVILLE – A couple hundred farmers, buyers and tourists converged on Farmers Tobacco Warehouse Tuesday morning to witness what could be Maryland's last tobacco auction.
"Nobody wants to work tobacco any more," said 63-year-old James Redlen of Baden, pausing to talk during the three-day event. "Everybody's going to town to get the higher-paying jobs. You can't blame them for that, though."
On Tuesday, as an auctioneer wended through stacks of dried tobacco, selling off 158,000 pounds of the crop to buyers from three tobacco processing companies, new and veteran farmers alike reflected on a dying farming tradition.
The Maryland industry was dealt a severe blow in 1999, when former Gov. Parris Glendening spearheaded a voluntary "tobacco buyout" program, which gives farmers money to stop growing the crop.
Some on Tuesday discussed whether they will continue growing, even if the auction in Maryland ends. If they do, they would have to sell directly to a cigarette company.
"This is the first year we've been unsure of what we want to do," said 18-year-old James Ball, who helped his father plant and harvest their tobacco crop and bring it to the Charles County auction. He said his father, John, has been farming for 20 years in Tracys Landing in Anne Arundel County.
"Now this year's price is a buck 60 (per pound), and he kind of cringes a little bit because he used to sell it for a bit more," Ball said of his father. "We'd be happy with . . . a buck 80, because that's what we got it for last year."
Thomas Bowles, 19, of Hollywood, one of the other rare young farmers at the auction, said he tried his luck at growing tobacco last year for the first time on his own. He said he's not likely to continue.
"There's really no incentive to raise tobacco. You work all year long and get nothing for it," he said with a hint of frustration in his voice. "I'd raise some (tobacco) if I could get something for it," he said.
For more than 300 years Southern Marylanders have been growing tobacco commercially, and the crop once held a major place in the region's history and identity. But today, only about 150 tobacco farmers remain in the state -- about 90 percent of them Amish or Mennonite, officials say. By last month, 854 Maryland tobacco farmers had signed up for Glendening's voluntary buyout, according to the Maryland Tobacco Authority.
Farmers have moved on to grow other crops. Redlen said he grew 35 acres of tobacco when he started in the 1970s. Today he grows only 2-and-a-half acres of it, because prices have dropped and finding labor to harvest has been difficult. His main crop today is corn, which he said he sells to Purdue for use as chicken feed.
Farmers and tourists watched as buyers representing various tobacco-processing companies placed bids on each pile of dried tobacco lined up in the wooden football-sized warehouse.
The buyers bidding at the auction were Export Leaf Tobacco Co. of North Carolina, Hale and Cotton of Tennessee and Bailey Tobacco Corp. of South Carolina.
Bidding went on for two hours; the remainder of this year's 300,000-pound crop will be sold on Wednesday, said Jane Schultz, co-owner of Farmers Tobacco Warehouse. They're expecting to clean up on Thursday, she said.
The prices for each pound of tobacco sold ranged Tuesday from $1.50 to $1.80, she said.
Ray Hutchins, executive secretary of the Maryland Tobacco Authority, had earlier predicted this may be Maryland's last tobacco auction.
"It's hard to say, really," he said Tuesday. "But the warehouses have got to sell a certain amount to continue opening the doors."
Even if the auction stops, Beverly Connelly of Clarksburg, said she will continue to grow. She brought in 600 pounds of tobacco for sale this week.
"Less people will be doing it," she said, "but hopefully, the prices will pick up."
The Capital News Service contributed to this story.