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Maryland's Tobacco Farmers Struggling to Survive

In recent months, several countries in Europe have banned cigarette smoking in enclosed public spaces, something many local governments in the United States have been doing for years. This has had a devastating effect on U.S. tobacco farmers. Although many farmers have quit growing this once-profitable crop, some continue a tradition that has been part of their families for generations. VOA's Craig Fitzpatrick traveled to the state of Maryland to talk with some farmers who are still trying to make a go of it. Ted Landphair narrates the story.

When David Cox cuts tobacco on his farm in Calvert County, Maryland, he uses a knife just like those used by farmers 300 years ago. He says this is the most efficient way of cutting tobacco because they have yet to invent a machine that can do this.

"Today we are harvesting tobacco. We have to manually cut the plant from the ground and then we can spear it on these sticks, which are then transferred to hang in a barn to cure."

David and his crew continue to harvest tobacco despite changes that have swept through this county in recent years.

Health concerns over cigarette smoking and lawsuits against tobacco companies have caused a rapid decline in the number of tobacco farms. In Maryland, the decline was accelerated by the state government, which used a portion of the funds from the tobacco industry's legal settlement to pay farmers not to grow tobacco. Many farmers took the money.

But others, like Franklin Wood, refused the buyout. "It was very lucrative to people my age to take the money and go; it would have meant quite a bit of money to me. But I had a big philosophical difference with it and I didn't want to sell my freedom of choice."

So farmers who took the money are prevented by law from growing tobacco or even storing a neighbor's crop in their barns, and many barns stand empty. This also means there will be fewer men like Joe Young to help harvest tobacco. "I've always been a hard worker, so the work doesn't bother me. But there aren't very many people who can even do this work anymore. We're some of the last of the breed, white and black."

The younger generation doesn't want to continue tobacco farming either. Why put up with fluctuating market prices, labor shortages, and uncertain weather? Despite the hardships, Franklin Wood says it's in his blood. "It was part of our culture and our heritage. It's been part of our life. It paid the bills in my father's time and in my grandfather's time. It was the money crop, as everybody knows, back to colonial days."

Mr. Cox adds, "It's been here in Southern Maryland since the settlers came and we don't know how much longer it will be here. But if the markets are acceptable to the few of us remaining, I'm sure it will stay awhile longer."

On productive farms like David Cox's, tobacco returns more income per hectare than any other crop. And Calvert County, Maryland has a reputation for producing some of the finest tobacco in the world. David expects to sell his tobacco to buyers from Switzerland.