How local farmers are helping Maryland recover from generations of tobacco
By Isaiah Ruffin and photography by Sarah Culver
It was only the late ’90s when, over just a few years, 86% of the nearly 1,000 tobacco farmers in Maryland stopped growing the crop. When the industry that had filled the state’s coffers for generations suddenly dried up, so did those farmers’ livelihoods.
But, were it not for “sotweed,” many towns in Maryland would have never existed. As much as the commodity of tobacco created the economic landscape in southern Maryland, its demise arguably did more for the state of its agricultural.
Between government incentives and an emerging vibrant culinary scene, welcome change has begun to revitalize Maryland’s tired soils. Tobacco’s demise has become a funding stream for the future of local food in Southern Maryland. The industry’s losses and region’s gains not only sent a powerful message about the dangers of smoking, but also paved the way for a more sustainable culinary scene in the DC metro area.
Chesapeake’s hot summers and balmy winters made Maryland well suited for tobacco cultivation from the time European settlers arrived. The crop proved very profitable to export, but cultivating tobacco had adverse environmental and social repercussions. In the early days, tobacco farming in the region entailed clearing a forest and then, once the rapacious crop had sapped the soil of its nutrients, that plot was abandoned for the next plot.
The increasingly degraded soils were not good for the agriculture business in Maryland. Tobacco yields declined because of the depleted soils and that, combined with fluctuating tobacco prices around the turn of the 18th century, was the first factor that led tobacco growers to consider new crops.
In the 1700s, many Maryland planters began to alternate between tobacco and grains, such as corn and wheat, whose prices were more stable than those of tobacco. By the late 1970s, production was confined largely to the five counties considered to make up Southern Maryland: St. Mary’s, Prince George’s, Charles, Calvert and Anne Arundel. With tobacco’s demise in sight, Maryland offered farmers a financially viable way out just at the right time.
“If it had happened 10 years sooner, there would have been a lot fewer farmers signing up. Had it been 10 years later, many of the farms would have already disappeared,” says Earl “Buddy” Hance, former Maryland Secretary of Agriculture.
The victorious settlements against “big tobacco” funded that same region’s future—which pivoted from international exports to local food.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the government and five large tobacco companies established the Master Settlement Agreement to provide cash to many of the states that had suffered economically from tobacco’s sudden collapse.
With its share of the settlement, Maryland began a tobacco buyout program in 1999, deploying $78 million of its $4 billion share of the settlement to provide local farmers a way out of tobacco.
To qualify for the program, a farmer was required to have grown tobacco in 1998, to permanently quit tobacco cultivation and to convert his land to other agricultural uses for at least 10 years. The combination of a financial incentive, falling tobacco prices and poor land quality made forsaking the world of tobacco farming irresistible to many. It also afforded farmers the opportunity to continue to work their fields with fewer negative environmental impacts.
With some of that funding, the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission has hosted educational workshops for farmers interested in growing new crops or meeting others who have already made the leap.
“When we started out with the workshops on local food,” says Christine Bergmark, SMADC’s executive director, “I was always surprised at the number of people who said, ‘I’m so glad you did this, because now I know who to ask about how to price an heirloom tomato.”
Since the buyout, many farmers transitioned to growing hay, vegetables or raising livestock. Others have pursued more niche or alternative crops such as greenhouse and nursery plants, cut flower farming or planting vineyards. For some, agri-tourism became their future, creating farm tours, farm stores, pick-your-own fields or corn mazes.
Rebuilding that landscape
Still, the transition from tobacco to other commodities has been a challenge. Russell and Eileen Shlagel, owners of Shlagel Farms, were among those who once grew tobacco in Charles County.
“I’d go back to tobacco if I could,” Russell Shlagel said in a 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times. “When you do something like that for such a long time, it’s hard to make the switch. But we’re going to try." Shlagels made the switch before the buyout program when the declining market and depressed prices of tobacco made it clear a new direction was needed for their farm and found themselves at the forefront of the buy local movement for local produce.
In the new millennium, the Shlagels’ story improved as they fully embraced tobacco’s replacement on their land: growing some of the best strawberries I have ever eaten. Now a stalwart of the pick-your-own strawberry farms and farm markets, Shlagels’ produces enough strawberries and vegetables to be sold in a few Giant grocers in southern Maryland. This former tobacco farming family has transitioned from an addictive crop to one that nourishes people, allowing them to connect with the growers during a visit to the bucolic farm.
Thanks to an influx of organic growers and farmers who grow food instead of tobacco, many farms are faring well and influencing menus of numerous influential restaurants in Maryland.
Nestled on a corner in Dupont Circle is such a restaurant, America’s first to be certified organic. At least 95% of the ingredients at Restaurant Nora are produced by certified organic farmers, growers and suppliers.
One of Chef Nora Pouillon’s restaurant’s suppliers, farmer Heinz Thomet of Next Step Produce, has always pushed for environmentally conscious farming as he’s replaced his land’s tobacco legacy with crops this region has not seen for generations, such as dry-land rice. He works with other chefs like Woodberry Kitchen’s Spike Gjerde to build dishes around crops that infuse—rather than strip away—nutrients into the soil, such as buckwheat. Though Heinz could not confirm it, he believes all farmland in southern Maryland at one time or another was a tobacco farm, even his own.
Sassafras Farm, a small organic farm in southern Maryland, sells niche specialty items to some of the award-winning farm-to-table restaurants such as Gjerde’s fleet of restaurants in Baltimore. Each of these establishments designs its menus around products that are seasonally available. This entrepreneurial creativity is a direct result of the increasing access to local organic produce, culminating in a sustainable culinary scene.
Many farmers who gave up tobacco production have embraced diverse products new to the region. George Bowling worked on farms growing corn and tobacco for much of his 70-some years before he began growing African vegetables on his own Southern Maryland farm in 2010. What started as an experiment is now producing market opportunities for producing more ethnic foods in the region.
With nearly 120,000 people born in Africa now living in the DC metro area and sharing their traditions with others, the market for his products is only growing. As farmers take on what was once considered “exotic” produce, the diversity of locally grown foods support the farmers who are redefining the landscape.
Tobacco farmers shaped Maryland’s earliest agricultural economy, but it is these same farmers who have taken innovative approaches in working with the food community to reshape it. Some of Southern Maryland’s once-fertile soils and dense forests are gone. But there is hope for the bioregion as former tobacco farmers reinvent themselves and find ways to use the land to produce foods that are good for the soils, for the community and for a vibrant culinary scene.