Tobacco down to about 400 acres in Md.
LEONARDTOWN, Md. — Maryland’s dwindling tobacco industry continued to contract this year despite improved weather across the growing season and a high-quality harvest, a University of Maryland Extension agent said.
Total planted tobacco acreage was around 400 acres, down from about 500 last year, said Ben Beale, an Extension agent. Between 40 and 50 growers raised the crop last year. This year, that number fell to about 30.
“We’re continuing to see folks transition acres away from tobacco into produce,” Beale said.
The vast majority of farmers grew Connecticut broadleaf tobacco, which is turned into cigar wrapping, and Maryland 609, a well-known regional variety, he said. The broadleaf crop harvest began in late July, and the 609 was harvested last month. Most of the crop is hanging in barns and being stripped and graded.
A small number of growers have also started raising a dark, air-cured tobacco variety more popular in Pennsylvania, he said.
But this year’s growing season was largely free of the previous year’s insistent rain, which can bedevil tobacco plants and cause disease such as frogeye leaf spot, a fungus that still lacks an effective treatment. Leaf spot has been a particular frustration among Southern Maryland growers over the last several years.
Those problems are also compounded if the grower is raising Connecticut broadleaf. Its harvested leaves can sell at a high price, but they must be blemish-free, as it used for cigar wrapping. Still, when properly raised, the crop can earn between $8,000 and $10,000 per acre in gross revenue, Beale said.
“Reports I’m hearing from growers is that it was a decent year,” he said.
The strength of the industry moving forward hinges on high-quality crops and good prices from buyers, most of which have receiving stations in Pennsylvania. The regional industry hasn’t recovered from its last blow when Philip Morris USA announced in February 2019 — just a few weeks before planting — that it wouldn’t be offering contracts with growers in the state to produce burley tobacco, as it had for nearly two decades.
At that point, there were still about 800 tobacco acres in the state and up to 70 growers.
But in addition to leaf spot, most remaining growers continue to struggle with labor shortages, which got worse after growers switched from burley to broadleaf and 609, both of which are more sensitive, labor-intensive varieties. What it means for the future of tobacco in Maryland is unclear, Beale said.
“Time will tell,” he said.