Thursday, April 24, 2008

Where I Come From, Vol. 1 - Maryland & Virginia Tobacco

Tobacco drying barn, Southern Maryland

When I grew up in the Mid-Atlantic (southeastern Virginia), agriculture was dominated by 4 principal crops: peanuts, loblolly pine, tobacco, and pork. Now, where farms remain, production is dominated by commercial poultry, corn/soybeans, vegetable farms, and nursery crops (shrubs, etc.). I was preparing a site for a wetland restoration project yesterday in extreme southern Maryland, and I thought I would share with y'all the tale of Maryland and Virginia tobacco.

On October 15, 1492 (purportedly), Christopher Columbus first smoked tobacco. The Spanish, who charted Columbus' journey, continued to dally in light tobacco trading for the next 75 years. Things changed dramatically when Sir John Hawkins first brought tobacco from the Virginia colony to England in 1565. Tobacco, primarily from the Middle East, had previously been called "sotweed," and suddenly became popular as an import from the cash-poor British Colonies in the southeastern Unitied States.

This increased demand drew British colonists to try their hand at tobacco cultivation, particularly from Georgia, north to Connecticut. In 1614, the first exchange of native Virginia tobacco was made to England. By 1620, Virginia was exporting 40 tons of tobacco annually. And by 1625, over-production in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina was causing a drop in prices. An agreement was reached between Virginia and North Carolina to limit production for export. However, in Maryland, Lord Baltimore responded that, "If planters are poor, it is not from the low price of tobacco, but from their owne sloth." Maryland finally signed the agreement in 1667. These price-fixing agreements caused great anger with British traders, who demanded full production and a return to low prices. The low prices never returned.

By the mid-1700s, the colonists' tobacco industry had become self-regulating, requiring growers' licenses and farm inspections by 1727-1730 (Virginia) and 1747 (Maryland). This decreased the control that the British Crown had on both of these colonies, as well as Connecticut to the north.
The "Tobacco War", also known as the American Revolution, followed in 1776.

The American war effort was almost fully subsidized by tobacco loans from the French Government, as well as the duPont company, who arrived state-side to begin production of gunpowder in northern Delaware. It would be naive to say that duPont would not have agreed to produce powder for the British troops, for a slightly higher rate.

DuPont's Brandywine Powder Works, ca. 1905

In 1781, the British were defeated, and true to the American way (or really, the British way), the new US Government instituted its first tobacco tax in 1794. The tax rate? 60% on purchases of snuff. Around the same time, commercial processing began in Virginia (Richmond), Maryland (Baltimore), and North Carolina (Winston-Salem). As a result, urban-dwelling Americans were able to buy cigarettes and snuff that had been grown and processed in the United States, instead of processed abroad.

Americans' love of tobacco continued to grow, well into the 1960s. However, amid rising health concerns associated with cigarette tobacco, Maryland eliminated subsidies for tobacco farmers in the early 1970s. Virginia, and eventually North Carolina, followed suit. By the year 2000, under a strong market for corn, there were less than 1,000 tobacco farmers left in Maryland, although their market was fairly robust (9.5 million pounds produced annually). The state of Maryland began a tobacco buyout program, which paid tobacco farmers to NOT plant tobacco. Over 90% of the farmers are in the program. The last tobacco auction in Maryland was held in March, 2006.

A similar tobacco buyout began in Virginia in 2005. So far, about 45% of farmers are participating.

Tobacco that outlandish weede

It spends the braine and spoiles the seede

It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight

It robs a woman of her right

Dr. William Vaughn, 1607


MUD said...

I am a reformed smoker and I can't abide the smell of the smoke. Love that barn. First thing I will build after I win the lottery. MUD

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Wonderful pictures and interesting history. There are still a lot of old tobacco barns here in Connecticut. I'm not sure, but I think some of them might still be in use.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Mud - that barn will probably be demolished (i.e burned down) this summer, the farmer would probably give it to you for free for taking it off of his property.

Sandpiper - different tobacco market in Connecticut. Apparently some Cubans (the people) were brought to Connecticut in the late 1600s to work the tobacco fields, and they taught the colonists how to roll cigars. It caught on, and "The Connecticut Wrapper" as well as "Connecticut Black Tobacco" are still VERY prevalent in cigar culture. In the mid-Atlantic it's almost 100% cigarette tobacco anymore.

tugboatdude said...

puff puff pass,that's interesting information thanks for making my tiny brain function before I go to sleep now I have a headache.

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