$5.7 Million Released for Tobacco Plan
Maryland officials have freed funds to compensate farmers to stop growing tobacco as part of a buyout program, according to Robert L. "Bobby" Swann, interim executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland.
Swann, a Democrat from Solomons who also serves as a Calvert County commissioner, made the announcement at the board's Tuesday meeting. The development comes as officials prepare for a series of meetings with farmers that begin this week.
The state has released $5,300,400 for the program, plus $450,000 for related activities, such as hiring, training and equipping an agricultural program administrator, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House of Delegates Committee on Appropriations told Swann in a letter. An additional $5,749,600 budgeted for the program will be released after there are "a definite number of participants," the letter said.
"We've cleared one of the major hurdles," Swann said last week.
The Tri-County Council, a regional planning and coordinating body of elected state and county officials and appointees in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties, is administering the program in Southern Maryland, where most of the state's tobacco crop is grown.
This week the council will conduct a series of informational meetings for farmers, Swann said. Following those sessions, farmers will be able to sign up for the program in October and November. Swann said officials hope that the payments to farmers will start at the beginning of next year.
Four informational meetings, each starting at 7 p.m., have been scheduled: Monday in Anne Arundel County at the Davidsonville Ruritan Club; Tuesday at the Calvert County Fairgrounds; Wednesday at the Charles County Governmental Center auditorium in La Plata; and Thursday in St. Mary's County at the Chopticon High School auditorium.
At the meetings, officials will review the program and talk about the contracts farmers will have to sign before receiving payments. A question-and-answer session is likely at each meeting, Swann said.
Most of the tobacco acreage in the state is found in Southern Maryland: roughly 40 percent in St. Mary's County, 20 percent each in Calvert and Charles counties, and the rest mostly in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, according to state figures. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has pledged more than $11 million so far toward the program, with the funds coming from Maryland's share of the settlement of litigation with the major tobacco companies.
Farmers who sign up would be compensated over a 10-year period. Payments would be based on the amount of tobacco each farmer grew in 1998. Almost two-thirds of Southern Maryland farmers surveyed in June said they would stop growing tobacco if the government compensated them, Swann said.
In exchange for their promise to stop growing tobacco, farmers would receive annual payments of $1 for every pound of tobacco they grew in 1998. A farmer with 30 acres could receive about $50,000 a year before taxes.
Producers who sign up for the payments will be required to stay in farming. Those who participate will likely be trying to come up with alternative crops to sustain their operations after the 10-year program ends. However, both farmers and state officials acknowledge, nothing pays like tobacco, which in recent years has sold for $1.50 to $2 a pound at the annual tobacco auctions in Southern Maryland.
The overwhelmingly favorable response by the farmers surveyed earlier this summer was viewed by agriculture officials as a victory for Glendening, who vowed in January to bring "Maryland's history as a tobacco state" to a close.
State officials have reiterated their commitment to fully funding the buyout program, even though the survey indicates participation will be higher than originally anticipated.
This week's meetings will likely begin to reveal whether farmers still have the enthusiasm for the program that they expressed in June. But Deputy Agriculture Secretary Hagner R. Mister, a former Calvert County commissioner and tobacco farmer, said earlier this summer that Glendening will increase the budget if necessary.
"Knowing the interest he has in this," Mister said, "I think he would try to find the money to do it."