Amish Farmers Reap Unexpected Benefit From Tobacco Deal
As Maryland pays out millions to discourage tobacco farming, Jacob Swarey and his brethren say they may grow more than ever.
Being Amish, Swarey faces many restrictions: no electricity, no cars, no cell phones and no government subsidies. When Maryland offered money to farmers to stop growing tobacco as part of a lawsuit settlement against the tobacco industry, Amish farmers such as Swarey had to decline.
Instead, Swarey, who raised 24 acres of tobacco last year at his farm on the Charles-St. Mary's county line, may benefit in another way as his competitors fade away.
"If the price gets good, between me and the boys, we might" grow more, Swarey, 48, said, standing on the porch of his large frame farmhouse with freshly washed clothes drying on the line. He is hoping for 30 acres this year.
"We do kind of discuss it among ourselves. We was hoping for an increase in the market [price]. That would encourage people to raise more."
Otherworldly Amish farmers such as Swarey, and Old Order Mennonites who hold similar beliefs and also farm tobacco, have become the unintended beneficiaries of the lawsuit that is shrinking Maryland's 300-year-old tobacco industry. The lawyers and accountants who devised the agreement in Maryland didn't plan it that way. But that is what appears to be happening.
The Swareys are among about 100 Amish and Mennonite families living on farms in Charles and St. Mary's counties, off Route 6, and a few miles down Route 5, around Loveville. Both groups came to Southern Maryland from Pennsylvania about 1940. They maintain their own schools and churches and live a simple life, uncomplicated by many modern conveniences. Unlike their Amish counterparts, Mennonite men do not have beards, but they wear the same kind of plain garb. Another thing they have in common is tobacco.
Last year's Maryland crop, 8.1 million pounds, averaged $1.68 per pound at market -- totaling $13.6 million -- for the farmers still growing it. Traditionally, tobacco has proven profitable in Maryland, producing nearly $2,600 per acre grown -- far more than other crops, such as corn and soybeans.
But two-thirds of the state's 991 tobacco farmers signed up for the buyout last year, and they -- along with others who signed up by Jan. 15 -- will be paid a total of about $80 million over 10 years, based on their average yields from 1996 to 1998.
The buyout is the result of the lawsuit settled in 1998 between the states and the tobacco industry. Maryland's share, expected to exceed $4 billion over 20 years, is being spent on health, education and other programs. Some of the money also is going to farmers who agree to stop growing tobacco. They are being paid $1 a pound.
More farmers this month signed up for the buyout -- in the third of five offers the state is expected to make -- potentially reducing the amount of Maryland tobacco for sale.
But officials think the Amish and Mennonite crops may increase to fill the void. In any case, the Amish and Mennonite farmers in Maryland are expected to supply about half of what will be put on sale in March: about 1 1/2 million to 2 million pounds out of 3 1/2 million. Before the buyout, the Amish-Mennonite share was much smaller.
"We think 1 1/2 to 2 million has to be an increase" proportionally, said David L. Conrad, tobacco extension agent for the University of Maryland and vice president of the industry-funded Maryland Tobacco Improvement Foundation.
"But, proportionally, when we were selling 8 million pounds, they were selling 2 to 2 1/2 million pounds. Their industry is stable, [and] we're seeing some growth in it. After the next couple of market years, we'll have a better idea."
Most Maryland tobacco is bought by Swiss and German cigarette companies. Philip Morris Cos. Inc. is the only domestic buyer for the slow-burning broad leaf traditionally grown here. The buyers have told Maryland warehouses -- the middlemen -- that they expect this year to purchase the entire crop.
Several Amish tobacco farmers said how much they decide to grow this year will depend on the market price at Maryland's five auction warehouses -- two each in Hughesville and Upper Marlboro and one in Waldorf.
"Most people are just waiting to see what's going to happen. As long as there's a good market for it, I think people will raise it," said one Amish farmer in Southern Maryland who grew seven acres of tobacco last year.
The Maryland crop also includes tobacco being harvested in Cecil County by Amish farmers who recently moved from Lancaster County, Pa. Officials say they came to find more farmland for their large families and better prices at the Southern Maryland auctions. Conrad estimated the Cecil County crop at 150,000 pounds.
In the weeks leading up to this year's seven-day market in March, warehouse competition for Amish tobacco has been keen.
"They're limited now in how much they can expand, but they want to continue to grow tobacco," said Gilbert O. Bowling Sr., owner of the Hughesville Tobacco Warehouse, who trucks their tobacco to market. "It's the best money crop they have. Vegetables and livestock are added income, but tobacco adds some stability."
A 58-year-old Amish farmer who spoke on condition of anonymity said tobacco is "one way we have work at home, for the children. It's just like everything else. We're all trying to make a living on the farm." He grew 12 acres last year, he said, while three of his sons raised seven, eight and six acres.
Amishman David Stoltzfus, 29, said in recent years, as most farmers have taken the buyout, he has increased his tobacco crop to 10 acres. He also raises corn and beef cattle.
Among the Mennonites, who are concentrated in the Loveville area of St. Mary's County, the story is much the same.
"Most people are planning to plant again," said Douglas Stauffer, 35, who raised three acres last year and plans to continue growing tobacco.