Dock of the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 34
Aug. 24-30, 2000
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Tobacco’s Last Stand

“When I first came down from Pennsylvania, it was late summer. Tobacco was in bloom on both sides of the road for miles and miles. It looked like a garden. It was beautiful,” recalls Calvert farmer Mary Briscoe.

If you want a photo of Maryland’s first crop growing in a nearby field for the picture album, you’d better snap it quick. Tobacco is being cut and hung early this year. Recovering from last summer’s drought, farmers are finding this year’s crops afloat.

Inclement weather isn’t the only reason you should get that photo. Struggling tobacco farmers bombarded with woes have decided to move on. The millennial tobacco crop will be the last for most.

The gavel that fell in a Florida courtroom this summer echoed straight up the coast to the heart of Bay Country. Here it fell upon the ears of local tobacco farmers, who are studying the hardest choice of their lives: whether to abandon tobacco forever or hold on in an industry becoming increasingly smoky.

The judgment, which awarded over 300,000 smokers $145 billion from the big five tobacco companies, had the companies crying foul. They’d changed their tune, they argued, and were committed to paying the national settlement of 1998 of $206 billion with 46 states, five territories and the District of Columbia — though they could only afford to pay $150 to $375 million. (That’s one to four days in wholesale cigarette sales.)

Now Maryland farmers are crying foul as they contemplate giving up tobacco forever.

Maryland’s tobacco buyout program is a special negotiated plan that takes five percent of the state’s national tobacco settlement and pays farmers $1 per pound (based upon their tobacco market yields from 1996-1998) to give up the crop. A Tri-County Council poll, conducted in June, found that about 66 percent have already decided to take the buyout. Another 26 percent would like to know more before making a final decision.

“I need more information. A lot of us don’t understand the program,” said Davidsonville farmer Oscar Grimes, who’s raised tobacco most of his 75 years. “I might take the buyout; I haven’t decided yet.”

Also undecided are Anne Arundel farmers Earl and Lillian Griffith. “We’re still waiting for the final rules and regulations like everyone else,” she said. “But we have other concerns. We have a young son who has chosen to come home from college and farm. We want him to be able to make a good living and this choice will determine his future.”

Will the money be there if Grimes and the Griffiths join the 80 percent projected to leave tobacco? If the Tri-County poll is accurate, the $9 million budgeted for the program this year won’t be enough. That has farmers confused, asking for guarantees.

Among the doubters are Riva tobacco farmer Kenneth Carr, who stopped planting his tobacco this year for the first time in half a century. “If the money ain’t there, that breaks my contract,” he said. “There’s got to be a guarantee somewhere.”

Tobacco Board Advisor Gary Hodge, who’s been part of the negotiating team from the beginning, said not to worry. “We have enough money to cover the buy-out,” he assured. “The money farmers get will replace their tobacco profit. But we want farmers who choose the buyout to move to alternative crops so we can sustain Southern Maryland agriculture. We will need additional funding for that.”

Where will that money come from?

“We still have work to do,” Hodge said. “We plan on appealing to the governor for more money. But, of course, there are no guarantees.”

So, riddled with confusion, frustration and doubt, the saga of Maryland’s first crop continues. Like their grandpappies before them, tobacco farmers will have to take their chances. Even when they agree to stop growing tobacco, there are no guarantees.

Future generations will look at that photo in your album or listen to stories like Mary Briscoe’s to capture the ironic beauty of the silky broad-leaf plant with clusters of pale pink blooms, a plant that offered a good living to farmers in Bay Country for centuries.

Next month, farmers will be able to voice their concerns at regional meetings throughout Southern Maryland. Then, applications will be taken for the buyout. First payments will follow in 2001.

—Connie Darago

831 More Acres in Rural Land Bank

The canopy falls low over the narrow paved road that winds to a secluded spot on the Bay. Pale pink mountain laurel decorates the thicket. Bay breezes drive the sweet smell of wild honeysuckle through the landscape.

Ah, tranquil living on the Bay. That’s a message Calvert County touts, greeting all comers with those words on its sign at the county line.

Alas, the well-kept secret is out. With Calvert County the state’s fastest growing region, scorekeepers worry that such pleasures are disappearing.

This summer, 831 acres of Calvert County moved out of growth’s way, joining 230,000 other Maryland open space acres. Flag Ponds Park in Lusby will grow by 75 acres, Chesapeake Beach adds .28 acres for Veterans Park and the Parkers Creek watershed gains 755 acres.

“We must move aggressively to combat the sprawl and protect natural resources in Southern Maryland. Acquiring the property adjacent to the Flag Ponds preserves open space and further expands an unbroken canopy near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The Veterans Park will offer a breathtaking vista of the Bay as visitors and residents enter the Town of Chesapeake Beach,” said Gov. Parris Glendening on approving $391,000 in the Department of Natural Resources Program Open Space funds.

At work since 1969, Maryland’s Open Space Program has put most Marylanders within 15 minutes of open or recreational land.

Open Space funds the ballfields where kids hit their first home runs in Little League; neighborhood playgrounds for laughing kids; local parks for escaping; and such amenities in community parks as tennis courts, fishing ponds, hunting areas, hiking and equestrian trails, greenways, historic sites, formal gardens and precious Chesapeake Bay shoreline access.

This summer, Calvert County reaps a big share of benefits. About $160,000 of the Open Space funds will purchase land adjacent to Flag Ponds, including 12.5 acres in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area.

Flag Ponds, now a county park, was once a pound-net fishing station on the Chesapeake Bay. Here are Bay beaches, forests, freshwater ponds, the cliffs of Calvert, hiking trails, a wetland boardwalk, fishing pier, swimming, picnicking and a visitors center with wildlife exhibits.

Director of Calvert County Parks Dwight Williams welcomes the new addition.

“The new parcel on the northeast side of Rt. 4 and the Quaker Farm marsh and wetland area gives us a different type of habitat to explore. We’re looking at two possibilities. One is developing an equestrian trail and the other expanding our educational programs,” Williams said.

Creating the Chesapeake Beach Veterans Park, opening the view from Route 260 to the Bay, cost $232,000 of Open Space funds. The park includes three separate parcels along the east side of routes 260 and 261. Located at the gateway of the town, it will offer access to the Bay through an existing pier.

“We are still in the formation stage,” says town engineer John Hoffman. “We don’t want to do too much to invade the vision of the Bay. We know there will be a flagpole, benches for people to sit, a place for plaques of veterans and landscaping to complete the beautification.”

South of Veterans Park and north of Flag Ponds, The Parkers Creek watershed gains 755 acres from the estate of late Comptroller Louis Goldstein. Invested in that purchase is over $5.4 million of Open Space funds in Calvert’s Rural Legacy.

Calvert’s Rural Legacy program also scored big in competition for state funding this year, taking home the sixth highest rural legacy grant made by the state: $1.8 million.

Lying along the Bay and both the north and south sides of Parkers Creek and Battle Creek, the Goldstein site helps the county stretch a green belt of 2,000 preserved acres from Chesapeake Bay to the Patuxent River. With the Parkers Creek addition, Rural Legacy has reached 57 percent of that goal.
The Nature Conservancy contributed $392,000 toward the $5.8 million project. “The Nature Conservancy is delighted to help protect one of the crown jewels of Maryland’s natural landscape, Parkers Creek, with the acquisition of the Goldstein property,” said local director of the Conservancy, Nat Williams.

So goes progress. There are more Marylanders each year, but no more Maryland. Only eight percent of the Free State is protected publicly owned space.

Open spaces like these mean nature and recreation where new generations can enjoy mountain laurel peeking through the forest and savor the sweet smell of wild honeysuckle.

—Connie Darago

Update: The Sun Shone on North Beach Bayfest

Late summer’s overdue abolition of rainy days proved all the reason North Beach needed to party on the waterfront at Bayfest 2000.

“Oh, it was fantastic,” exclaims the Town of North Beach’s Diane Herrmann. “We had about 19,000 people there on Saturday and 10,000 on Sunday.” Among the revelers were President of the Senate Mike Miller and Del. George Owings, among other dignitaries.

Fun seekers were lured to the 18th annual Bayfest by outstanding weather and a full slate of family fun including a crab feast, live music from five bands, an antique car show, a parade, several classic picnic games and much more. It was such a good turnout, says Herrmann, that “food vendors sold out. Two had to close down.”

In the end, this year’s Bayfest was the best yet. New ideas are already being tossed around for next year’s merriment. So far it’s been decided the crab feast will span both days instead of only one and the Bayfest will move back to the fourth weekend of August.

—Mark Burns

Way Downstream …

On the Eastern Shore, EPA investigators descended on two Tyson’s poultry farms near Salisbury after a tip about piles of chicken manure and chicken corpses, the Associated Press reported. The EPA action is good news for people worried about poultry pollution seeping into the Chesapeake Bay …

In Washington, D.C., a U.S. EPA toxicologist broke ranks last week to say that the spraying of malathion to kill mosquitoes is not as safe as government agencies tell us. The scientist, Brian Dementi, said that malathion ought to be classified as a human cancer-causer, The New York Times reported …

Also in Washington, an announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service has ended the Give Swordfish a Break campaign by SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The service announced plans this month to close over 100,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to longline fishing, and a similar ban could be introduced in September in the Grand Banks off New England and Canada — new regulations that may, indeed, give threatened swordfish a break …

In Northfield, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, pigeon-fancier Bruno Dymek was forced to release his 80 racing pigeons because of complaints. The story didn’t end there, the Chicago Tribune reported last week. The homing pigeons returned — with some of their pals. Now there are about 150 pigeons at Bruno’s house, and neighbors are doubly irritated …

Our Creature Feature comes from Adams, Mass., where police received a call from a woman named Margaret Lowry one morning last week reporting a black bear in her garden. Sure enough, when two police arrived, there was apparently a “good-sized black bear slumbering behind the plants,” according to a Boston Globe report.

Upon closer examination, it was determined that the bear wasn’t stuffed from gorging on garden produce. It was stuffed period: a huge black teddy bear. Authorities took the bear into custody nonetheless, and at last report it was at the police station, uncaged.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly