What happens when a region loses its “money crop?”

tobacco barn

Tobacco barn

Maryland was one of 46 states to win the “Master Settlement Agreement” with the major tobacco companies in 1998. At issue was the cost of health care borne by the states due to smoking. In Maryland, a Cigarette Restitution Fund was established to “implement strategies to reduce the burden of tobacco related disease . . . with a specific emphasis on tobacco use prevention and cessation and cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment.”

Governor Glendenning also wished to end tobacco production in Maryland. He proposed a “tobacco buyout” program to be funded by up to 5% of the state’s share of the 25-year settlement agreement to support Southern Maryland’s Regional Strategy for Agriculture. Thus, in Southern Maryland, we became the guinea pigs for a big experiment to replace a region’s #1 crop with other farm products.

Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC) was formed to “administer the buyout and to create a new infrastructure to support viable kinds of farming in the region.” The 17-member Commission  consisted of a broad cross-section of the community including farmers, elected officials, and representatives from local government, business, and finance.

It is difficult to describe the mood associated with the loss of tobacco to the farming community. In Southern Maryland, the size of farms, the type of barns and even the formation of communities had been heavily influenced by tobacco production. By 1998, most acknowledged that tobacco was harmful to human health. However, tobacco farmers had always been proud of their ability to bring a good crop to market, the same as generations before them. Most tobacco farmers reluctantly supported the buyout, but the future of farming was in peril. Many older farmers could not see themselves trying something new and others had a steep learning curve.

The opportunity to sign up for the Tobacco Buyout began in 2001 and ended in 2005. Tobacco total ag saleswas always the “money crop” in Southern Maryland. Farmers raised other products but most relied on tobacco to  remain in business. By 2002, 63% had taken the buyout. Ultimately, 83% of all tobacco farmers (producing 92% of total lbs) signed up. Between 1997 and 2002, the USDA ag census reported a 38% drop in agricultural sales (see figure 1).

Meanwhile, the Commission explored opportunities for new farm enterprises and staff held seminars, workshops and training programs to help farmers explore ways to diversify and market new products. SMADC developed the So Md So Good brand in 2002 and initiated the Buy Local Challenge in 2007. It provided small grants to start or expand farmers’ markets. As farms began to diversify, SMADC prepared and published the So. Maryland So Good Farm Guide. As agritourism businesses began to take off, it created the Trails Guide. As each new specialty emerged, SMADC supported it with a new guide.


figure 2

It takes time to learn how to grow new products and develop new markets, but progress has been made, as reflected in the 2012 ag census. Recognizing the huge consumer market and the potential of the local food movement, existing farmers and new farmers began selling directly to consumers. This data is captured in the census as the Value of Ag Products Sold Directly in Individuals for Human Consumption. Processed items such as cheese, jams, and wine are not included in this category.

From 2007 to 2012, the value of ag products sold directly to individuals for human consumption grew 58% in Southern Maryland, versus 32% in the state and all five counties experienced growth in sales (see figure 2). Direct sales grew by $1.6 million in Southern Maryland.

As mentioned earlier, a number of farmers in Southern Maryland also

figure 3

figure 3

experimented with agri-tourism following the tobacco buyout, such as farm and winery tours, hay rides, and corn mazes, and SMADC supported the effort with workshops and trails guides. This effort has provided a new revenue source for farmers and Southern Maryland’s tourism industry as a whole.

Between 2007 and 2012, agritourism sales grew 142% in Southern Maryland vs. -1% for Maryland as a whole. Total agri-tourism sales grew by $586,000 over the period for the four counties and this does not include the other economic benefits associated with agri-tourism such as overnight stays and dining. Calvert data was not included to avoid disclosing data for individual farms.

Other advances

The USDA ag census does not provide the same level of data for wine sales, so we don’t know the progress made there. However, it does report that the number of acres in grape production increased 78%, from 77 acres to 137 acres, between 2007 and 2012.

Also, the Southern Maryland Meats program is too new to report progress but we expect significant gains by the 2017 ag census.

Has Southern Maryland Agriculture Rebounded? Yes and No

The good news is that it has finally rebounded to pre-tobacco buyout numbers as a result of innovation, diversification, and support from the counties, the Tri-County Council and the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (see figure 4).

figure 4

figure 4

However, total Maryland agriculture sales almost doubled over the same period that Southern Maryland was just trying to recover. In 1997, total Southern Maryland agriculture sales represented 5.6% of total Maryland agriculture sales. As of 2012, total Southern Maryland sales were 3.6% of total Maryland agriculture sales.

Southern Maryland has some catching up to do with the rest of the state to fully recover from the big ag experiment to end tobacco production.