Maryland tobacco may be up in smoke

A tobacco type that got its start nearly 400 years ago may be coming to an end in the United States.

Growers of Type 32 Southern Maryland tobacco planned to bring their 2005 production to a single warehouse in Hughesville Md., on March 21 for three days of auctions.

If buyers don't offer a price that will make the type competitive with burley, it seems quite possible that the type will disappear altogether from the state where it originated in the early 1600s.

As the date of the auction neared, only three buyers had indicated their intention to participate in the sales at Farmers Warehouse in Hughesville, said David Conrad, Maryland Extension tobacco specialist. They were the leaf dealers Export Leaf (representing British American Tobacco), Hail & Cotton and Atlantic Orient, a small cigarette manufacturer from Greece, he said.

This crop appears to be a very respectable one, said Conrad. But it will be the smallest one on record, perhaps 300,000 pounds total. Last year's crop was nearly 1.9 million pounds. Just 10 years ago, crops in the 10-million-pound range were common.

But two factors have changed all that. First, there has been a continuing decline in the use of Southern Maryland tobacco in cigarettes. At one time, it was a component in almost all American blend cigarettes, going right back to the first American blend, RJ Reynolds' Camel.

The burning ability of Southern Maryland leaf, which is very thin, made it appealing to domestic companies. But in the last 20 years or so, they seem to have found some other means to achieve that end. With the possible exception of Bailey's Cigarettes in Virginia, it appears that no U.S. manufacturer currently uses Maryland in its blends. Conrad said he didn't know if Baileys planned to buy from this crop.

Maryland leaf has a distinctive flavor that has retained popularity in some European markets. “These cigarettes are sold primarily in Switzerland, but you see them also in France, Germany and Italy,” says Conrad.

Adding to the disappearance of Type 32 in Maryland has been a state program that used Master Settlement funds to pay farmers to give up their rights to grow and market tobacco once and for all.

This year's buyers will probably be satisfied with the crop on the floor.

“We had a good growing season with adequate moisture,” said Conrad. “We had good weather for harvesting. The curing conditions were a little on the dry side. We saw some K color in the leaf. But this is a very respectable crop with an average yield of perhaps 2,000 pounds per acre, which would put it in the average range.”

Only about 150 acres of Type 32 were planted in Maryland this year, and the question growers are asking is whether they are growing enough to keep European buyers coming back.

“This is the smallest crop on record,” said Conrad. “Apparent orders by European cigarette manufacturers have totaled between 600,000 and 700,000 pounds of tobacco in each of the last four years, and we don't have nearly that much. If not enough tobacco is produced, I would expect the Europeans to critically reevaluate their need to return in 2007.”

But it is not clear where they could turn. The only foreign competitor that Conrad knows of is Brazil, and that country doesn't produce much of this style either.

Burley (Type 31) was a bigger crop in Maryland this year, by a scale of about two to one. It appears that the initial crop turned out well.

“My impression is that this crop was quite acceptable considering it was their first time growing the type,” said Conrad. “Our curing conditions were on the dry side, as they were for our Type 32. We would have liked higher humidities, and our colors were more toward the L grades instead of the more desirable Fs or Rs. We are still learning the agronomic aspects of growing burley.”

The 400-odd acres of burley were all grown on contract with Philip Morris USA. Conrad estimated Maryland production at 600,000 to 700,000 pounds. “But that might be on the high side,” he added.

Burley was grown in 2005 in all the counties where Southern Maryland has traditionally been grown and also in Cecil County in the northeast corner of the state. These are for the most part Coastal Plain soils and are different from the Kentucky and Tennessee soils where burley is grown. They may be more like the Piedmont and Coastal Plain soils of North Carolina and Virginia where burley is going in for the first time.

There were a few Maryland growers who had both Maryland and burley in 2005 but usually it was one or the other, said Conrad. Burley growers delivered their leaf to New Holland Pa.

If the demand holds, more burley will be planted in Maryland.

“We definitely have the potential to increase burley production here,” said Conrad. “The limiting factor would be curing facilities and labor.”

Ironically, there is an abundance of old Type 32 barns remaining in Maryland, and all could easily be adapted to cure burley. But most are on farms that were involved in the state buyout and therefore can't be used for tobacco of any type.

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