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From Tobacco to Soybeans: Southern Maryland's 'Growing' Tradition

Story by Kathy Warren

There is a great deal of speculation as to when and how farming began in North America, but what is seldom in question is the belief that the first farmers were American Indians. Migrating from Central and South America, American Indians are believed to have settled in North America as early as 5000 B.C. Eventually, some American Indians made their way to the East Coast of the United States, establishing what is commonly referred to as "Woodland Tribes." By locating close to coastal plains, these first settlers could fish and hunt as well as farm the land. Tobacco, corn, squash and beans were some of the crops grown, with careful attention paid to retaining the best seeds for the next year's planting. Egalitarian in nature, these tribes shared the wealth of the bounty among one another and only took from the land what they needed.

With the arrival of the first European settlers in the 1600s, farming would become more than just life-sustaining for the new colonists. The dream of many of these new immigrants was to obtain wealth through farming, just as they had seen happen in their home countries. Successful farmers throughout Europe were capable of growing crops for sale locally and for export, creating wealth that allowed them to purchase more land and amass more wealth, something the early immigrants hoped to imitate. Though many of the first settlers to Maryland had farmed in their native Europe, climate and soil differences would prove challenging as they attempted to grow crops they were familiar with back home. With the aid of the local American Indians, the European settlers would soon find new and different crops to grow, including the productive cash crop: tobacco.

Maryland's Tobacco Road

No one really knows when tobacco was first introduced in Europe, but it was clear that the use of tobacco was firmly entrenched in European culture by the time Maryland was colonized. American Indians throughout the Americas and the West Indies had long used tobacco for religious, ceremonial and even celebratory rituals, such as declaring peace. It is believed that the first explorers were introduced to the practice of smoking, snuffing and chewing the leaves by the American Indians and carried the tradition back to Europe. During the mid 1500s, a French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot de Villemain, brought seeds back to the court of France, touting the medicinal virtues of tobacco. The plant was grown and used to treat any number of ailments and gained widespread appeal and acceptance throughout Europe. It was given the botanical name Nicotiana tabacum, after Jean Nicot. Nicotine, the addictive component of tobacco identified by German scientists in the 1820s, is also named for the famous Frenchman. Orinoco tobacco from the West Indies would soon replace the harsher less desirable tobacco grown by the American Indians in Maryland and would be used for export to England.

From 1634, when the first European colonists arrived in Maryland, until the end of the 1600s, most of the farm labor consisted of indentured servants. Large land grants had been given to some immigrants, often sons of noblemen back in England. These manors or plantations required workers to clear, cultivate and harvest the crops so indentured servants were brought over from England. As payment for their passage to America, indentured servants would work for a plantation owner for the next four to seven years. At the end of their servitude, they would be given 50 acres to farm themselves. In return for bringing more people to the colony, the land owners were rewarded with 100 extra acres for each person brought over, allowing their land holdings to grow and therefore their wealth to grow as well.

By the early 1700s, the number of indentured servants would greatly lessen while the number of slaves would greatly increase. Tobacco continued to be the major cash crop for export, so much so that land owners had to be forced by Acts of the Assembly to grow other crops, such as corn, to sustain themselves and their families. The first African American slaves brought to Maryland were mostly male; some came via the West Indies, while others came directly from Africa. As the plantations grew, so did the demand for slaves. Conditions for the slaves were harsh and emotionally overwhelming. The work of growing tobacco was a hard existence and only the wealthiest land owners could afford large numbers of slaves - sometimes only three or four slaves would be tasked with doing acres of work each day. African American slaves in Maryland were eventually allowed to marry with their children being born into servitude. In addition to tending the fields, many slaves became skilled craftsmen, such as blacksmiths or farriers.

The tools of farming changed very little over the next 100 years. Horse-drawn plows and planting by hand still dominated the industry throughout the 1800s. What did change was that following the War of 1812, Maryland tobacco farmers were now free to export their wares throughout Europe without the controls and restrictions previously placed upon them by England. The other major change was the abolition of slavery following the Civil War. Some wealthy plantation owners returned from fighting in the war to find that their land had been confiscated by the government, while others returned to viable working farms, which had been cared for by loyal African American slaves. Because many wealthy Maryland plantation owners had sought other capital ventures by becoming merchants or other business owners over time, the transition to life without slavery proved less devastating in Maryland than in some other slave-holding states. A switch to less labor-intensive crops, such as grains and vegetables, accompanied the end of slavery in Maryland, with large plantations being parceled off into smaller more manageable farms.

Planting the Seeds of Change

The 20th century would provide great change for farming in Southern Maryland. Improvements in equipment, the ability to transport goods farther, and the introduction of improved fertilizers and insecticides changed the face of farming in the area tremendously. Better roads and the introduction of railroads and steamboats all aided farmers in getting their crops to markets in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Packing plants began springing up all around Maryland for everything from seafood to tomatoes. Canned tomatoes and corn were sent from Southern Maryland to feed troops overseas during both world wars.

Farming continued to be a vital source of income for many Southern Maryland families during the early half of the 20th century. Federal programs, such as the Farm Security Administration, were developed during the Depression to encourage co-op farming and help poor, rural families receive medical care, improve living conditions, and provide loans to help families avoid foreclosure and keep the family farm.

A Growing Population

As Southern Maryland grew, family farming became increasingly difficult. Local farmers were forced to compete with cheaply grown produce available at the local grocers. Fluctuating prices in the marketplace due to surpluses or a bad growing season, coupled with the cost of expensive machinery and fertilizers, led some farmers to seek employment elsewhere. It also became increasingly hard for families to maintain large parcels of land due to the taxes. Many farmers had to sell pieces of their farms, leaving them less acreage to work and less to pass along to future generations. Families also began having fewer children, so the available labor to help maintain the farms was dwindling.

In 1999, following the big tobacco lawsuits and a decline in demand for the crop, the Maryland Legislature structured a settlement to buy out area tobacco farmers. The voluntary buyout program would allow farmers to receive payments spread out over a 10-year period in exchange for promising to never grow or be involved in the production of tobacco again. In 2001, those who signed up for the program began receiving their first compensation checks. For many, it was an easy decision. Declining prices had made growing tobacco a risky business and the continuing pressure on big cigarette companies to find other avenues for revenue was looming large. More than 80 percent of farmers in Maryland participated in the buyout, leaving only the staunchest growers or the local Amish and Mennonite communities to continue producing tobacco. Some farmers turned to other crops, such as soybeans, corn, or even flowers, while others chose to put their land into preservation programs to prevent future development and maintain the rural agricultural landscape. Vineyards were also created to produce wine in the region.

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