Betting on Broadleaf
CHAPTICO, Md. — Jerry Spence stepped onto a small field behind his home one evening late last month, kneeled between two crop rows and began inspecting tobacco leaves, moving from plant to plant with a growing sense of relief.
“This looks pretty good, considering,” he said, cradling one of the plant’s broad, elliptic leaves, part of a tiny but lush crop across 2 acres in northwestern St. Mary’s County. “I’m pretty ecstatic to see that this hasn’t gotten worse today.”
Scorching heat had followed several days of rain — a threat to Connecticut Broadleaf tobacco, which Spence and other farmers are growing for the first time in Maryland this summer. Rain accelerates its growth, temporarily weakening the crop and making it more susceptible to insect damage and sun scalding.
Relatively cool weather over the past two days seemed to revive what had been a wilting field. Spence, 40, remained tentative.
“It’s just a lot of uncertainty at this point, and I’m not certain it’s going to work out,” he said.
The field represents a risky transition for Spence and Maryland’s small community of tobacco growers. What’s left of the state’s once-booming tobacco industry suffered a severe blow in late February when Philip Morris USA announced it would no longer buy burley tobacco in Maryland. Most of the state’s 60 to 70 tobacco farmers, who have been growing burley for nearly two decades, were contracted to the Richmond, Va.-based cigarette maker and received the news just a few weeks before planting.
Several tobacco buyers, including Lancaster Leaf in Pennsylvania and Hail & Cotton in Tennessee, quickly moved in late February and March to scoop up Philip Morris’s abandoned acreage. The market for U.S. burley is rapidly declining, and the companies offered contracts to farmers for two types of tobacco: Maryland 609, familiar to most local growers, and Connecticut Broadleaf, a variety used as cigar wrapping and mostly unknown in the state.
Maryland farmers have split most of their acreage between 609 and Connecticut Broadleaf, said Ben Beale, a University of Maryland Extension agent in St. Mary’s County. The contracts are a lifeline to the state’s tobacco industry, experts said, but the shift from burley will require farmers to make significant adjustments. Maryland 609 is a more demanding and less resilient crop, and Connecticut Broadleaf, while potentially more lucrative, is riskier.
“It’s probably twice as much time and effort,” Spence said.
Beale estimates Maryland growers have planted between 200 and 300 acres of Connecticut Broadleaf — a significant chunk of the state’s roughly 800 remaining tobacco acres. Several growers said they’ve approached the variety cautiously this year, reducing their overall planted acres. It’s historically raised in the Connecticut River Valley, but New England’s cropland scarcity, labor costs and a rise in cigar sales have expanded production into Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee in recent years, said David Reed, a Virginia Tech Extension agronomist.
Virginia farmers, accustomed to growing dark fire-cured tobacco for chewing tobacco and snuff, have been raising air-cured Connecticut Broadleaf for two years with success. Last year, only three Virginia farmers grew it. This year, 40 to 50 of them are growing more than 200 total acres, Reed said.
Because broadleaf is used as a cigar wrapper, buyers are stringent, paying between $5 and $6 per pound for immaculate leaves without holes, insect damage or sunburn. Damaged leaves are purchased at a significant discount for binder or filler.
It requires more diligence than burley, which is more resilient to pests and mostly processed into cigarettes, allowing Maryland farmers more freedom while growing and harvesting the crop.
“You could throw (burley) up against anything like a dishrag,” said Wayne Guy, another St. Mary’s County farmer growing 14 acres of broadleaf for Hail & Cotton. With broadleaf, he said, “you just do the best you can and hopefully they’ll be kind of lenient with us the first year out.”
Connecticut Broadleaf is more vulnerable, growers said, requiring additional sprays. (Spence said he’s spending $400 more per acre on pesticides.) Black shank, a problematic fungus in southern tobacco states, is a particular concern. Weather events, such as hail or violent storms, can puncture or damage the plant’s leaves, dramatically lowering if not destroying their value.
“It’s a high-risk, high-reward type of crop,” Spence said.
The harvest is also different. Once cut, burley tobacco can be stacked and left in the field before moving it into a barn.
“With the burley, we could shock (cut, spear and stack) it and leave it out there for three days,” Guy said.
Connecticut Broadleaf farmers have no such luxury. Once the crop is stalk-cut, it’s quickly hung on a scaffolding wagon, which most Maryland growers don’t own, and moved to the barn to hang for several weeks.
“That’s going to be quite a change,” Spence said.
Broadleaf yields average about 1,800 pounds per acre — much less than burley’s 2,400-pound yield. Due to inevitable crop damage, Maryland farmers are likely to average about $3 to $3.50 per pound on broadleaf this year, Reed said — marginally more than what they probably earned selling burley to Philip Morris.
“This represents a potential godsend for them,” Reed said.
Many farmers have also been asked to grow Maryland 609 tobacco, which virtually disappeared from the region after the state bought out most of its tobacco farmers in 2000. Lancaster Leaf, for instance, was initially demanding 3 acres of 609 for every acre of broadleaf planted this year.
“We don’t want them to fail,” said Ben Green, manager of agronomy and domestic services at Lancaster Leaf.
Maryland 609, like broadleaf, can’t be left in the field long after harvest due to its sensitivity to sunlight. It has a lower yield, and its profit potential isn’t as rosy. Contracts ranged between $1.90 to $2 per pound, Beale said — too low for many farmers to turn a worthwhile profit. Spence is growing an acre of it with the hope that if his broadleaf acreage fails, the 609 might help him cover his costs.
Of Maryland’s 800 tobacco acres, roughly a third wasn’t planted this year as farmers transition cautiously, Beale said. It’s a trivial total compared to the state’s booming tobacco acreage in previous decades. In the early 1980s, more than 24,000 acres were devoted to the tobacco before Washington and Baltimore’s rapidly encroaching suburbs swallowed much of the state’s cropland.
Maryland’s tobacco buyout, funded through a master settlement agreement with cigarette makers, banned nearly 900 farmers from growing the crop and eliminated almost 8 million pounds of yearly tobacco production from the state. Four years later, there were just 1,100 tobacco acres, and a nearly 360-year growing tradition in Maryland seemed like it was approaching its end.
Today, many of Maryland’s remaining growers are Amish or Mennonites who declined the state’s buyout and continue to grow on small plots for a shrinking number of smokers and tobacco users across the country. In 2018, U.S. farmers produced about 533 million pounds of tobacco, a low not seen since the 1800s and nearly half what they produced in 2000, USDA data show.
An increasing number of consumers understand the severe health risks of cigarettes and have turned to purportedly less dangerous alternatives such as e-cigarettes that deliver nicotine in aerosol form and require less tobacco to produce. Cigarette makers are responding. Just two months before Philip Morris dismissed its Maryland burley growers, its parent company, Altria, announced a $12.8 billion investment in Juul, a leading e-cigarette maker in San Francisco.
The decline of Maryland’s tobacco industry has made it more difficult for those who remain. Spence said local suppliers are sometimes short on tobacco-grade fertilizer because fewer farmers buy it. Many tobacco barns in Southern Maryland are more than 70 years old. Labor shortages are a persistent problem, and some tobacco farmers said they might need more help to accommodate these new varieties.
“It’s work. To be quite frank, people these days don’t want to work as hard as they used to,” said Charlie Cox, a Calvert County farmer growing 5 acres of Connecticut Broadleaf for Hail & Cotton. “You have to either grow up with it or be willing to learn how to work with it.”
Many growers were topping their crop last week and expected to begin cutting this week, Beale said. If Connecticut Broadleaf does well, it could become a viable, long-term option for growers in the state, he said.
Lancaster Leaf has just 20 acres contracted across more than 20 Maryland farmers, said Tom Stephenson, the company’s chief financial officer.
“We’re hopeful that the crop comes out well in Maryland this year, and if it does, I think we would have every intention of expanding it,” he said.
Spence is depending on that. Tobacco accounts for 40 percent of his income in addition to a Charles County soil conservation job and what he makes from the rest of his family’s farm, which he runs in partnership with two brothers.
When Philip Morris left the state, Spence wondered how he might replace tobacco. There weren’t any immediate answers. In all his time raising the crop, he said, he never lost money.
“Not many farmers can say that,” he said.
Cox said he hopes Maryland farmers prove they can raise high-quality wrapper leaf.
“It’s a new variety for us and a new technique of growing, so we’ve got to take it day by day and pray it’ll all work out,” he said.
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