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A hazy future

Posted on July 9, 2000

Officials looking for alternative crops for state’s tobacco farmers

By EB Furgurson III, The Capital

Annapolis, Maryland — Tobacco farmers, who face giving up the crop upon which Colonial Maryland’s economy was built, are struggling to answer one burning question: What could they grow that could possibly be as profitable?

Some growers of the region’s distinct burley have already turned to vegetables and fruits. Others are looking at everything from wine grapes to beer hops and even hemp, the relative of marijuana. And still others will stick with tobacco until the market goes up in smoke.

State agriculture officials and university researchers are studying alternatives and programs to pitch to farmers, who will have to decide for themselves which would be best for their individual operations.

Factors they’ll have to weigh include the size of their operations, soil composition and labor costs.

But the overriding factor for all parties is finding or creating markets to support the crop alternatives.

“There are 5 million people from Richmond to Philadelphia,” Jim Hanson, assistant director of the Maryland Cooperative Extension, said. “The challenge is to develop those markets.”

The University of Maryland is studying the viability of grapes as a tobacco alternative.

Maryland vineyards each year only produce about half the grapes needed to make the amount of wine that some experts think the market would bear.

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who supports the idea, noted that southern Maryland is at the same latitude as France’s Bordeaux wine-growing region.

But a south county farmer who grows several varieties of wine grapes near Jug Bay said that is a stretch.

“Anytime you start latitude parallels, it does not mean a whole lot,” said Jim Riggleman, who has been growing grapes since 1969. “It depends on soils, microclimate and other variables.”

But the retired horticulturist says the soils at his farm are fine for the gamay, chardonnay, pinot noir and other varieties he grows. Some farmers considering that option are fretting over the fiveyear period it takes for grape arbors to yield a crop. But that’s what the state’s tobacco buyout plan is designed to ease.

Robert Swann, the former state comptroller who now heads the TriCounty Council of Southern Mary land that will oversee the program, said the plan is designed to help tide farmers over until alternative crops, and their markets, take root.

Most growers, according to a poll by the council, favor a program that would pay them not to plant tobacco. That buyout program would spend up to $80 million over the next 10 years as former tobacco farmers who turn to new crops.

The state is even considering allowing tobacco farmers to grow a formerly taboo crop.

Maryland this year became the fourth state in the nation to allow the production of industrial hemp.

Under legislation passed by the General Assembly, farmers can apply for a licenses to grow hemp, but must agree to many restrictions including inspections of fields and storage areas. Hemp the fiber of which is used to make ropes, paper, fuel and cloth and marijauna are different varieties of the cannabis plant.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency considers hemp a controlled substance though only trace amounts of the intoxicating chemical THC found in marijuana are present in hemp.

Under its watch, the first legal plot was planted in Hawaii in December.

Hawaiian scientists had to agree to grow it behind a 12-foot fence with infrared surveillance, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Like other tobacco alternatives, hemp’s downside is the market. The same USDA report concluded the “market for hemp might easily be oversupplied,” as in Canada where 35,000 acres of hemp produced in 1999 may have been more than the market could handle.

The report quoted Canada’s biggest hemp processor who said, “There’s been a major overestimation” of the market.

But the report also said that the potential market in the U.S. could be met with production of 250,000 acres or “roughly 40 percent of 1999 tobacco acreage” a phrase that got the attention of the crop replacement folks.

Severna Park Liquors owner Bob Cancelliere hopes to get the attention of tobacco growers with a crop alternative he thinks might be a winner hops.

He has a German variety of the crucial brewing ingredient growing next to his garden. The clinging vine has grown some 25 feet long this season and is now bursting with the flowers used to produce beer.

Mr. Cancelliere has been selling beer-making supplies for 18 years and planted hops a few years ago as a lark.

He was surprised to find how well the plant grew and thinks it could be a boon to area farmers. Home brewing stores sell hops at $1 an ounce; it takes about 1.5 ounces to make a five-gallon batch of beer.

“It is not grown in the U.S. except in the Willamette Valley in Washington State,” he said snipping off one of the ping-pong ball sized flowers.

“We could get some Anne Arundel County wheat or barley, our local hops and wellwater and make a real Anne Arundel brew.”

He said the several microbreweries in the state, like Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis, and larger operations like Frederick Breweries in Frederick, along with home brew outlets, could all be markets for Maryland hops.

Hops have been mentioned as an alternative in agriculture circles, according to Mr. Swann.

Other crops and markets being considered to help tobacco farmers move from Maryland 32 Burley are:

Specialty vegetable and meat products for a growing Latino and Asian population in the region.

Specialty products, such as hot sauce or corn relish, which would be processed for farmers at a new southern Maryland facility.

Nursery stock operations, such as trees and bushes, which are already the second-biggest farming product in the state, behind poultry.

Riva farmer Kenneth Carr has leased 20 acres of his land to a company growing native wildflower species. He didn’t plant tobacco on his farm this year for the first time for a half century.

Mr. Carr said it does not make up for the money he could make growing tobacco but it keeps his land in agriculture. “My land is not going for development,” he said. “Development is like a cancer, once it starts it does not stop.”

Copyright © 2000, The Capital. All rights reserved.