"Tobacco was once a major industry in Maryland," said an old friend the other day. "Now it is just a rip-off…"
Everywhere we go, we try to gauge the temper of the times. Sometimes we are amused. Sometimes, we are saddened. Often, we reminisce.
"I tell you, Bill" our friend continued, "it just isn’t like it used to be. We’ve all got those fancy kitchens with the islands in the center and that fake marble on the top. We’ve all got air-conditioning and wall-to-wall surround sound. But it seems like something got lost along the way. But maybe it’s just me… I’m beginning to feel like a cranky old fuddy-duddy."
It’s hard to draw a bead on life when you’re moving through it so fast. Your point of reference shifts every day. You drive around and remember old landmarks. You recall how things used to be. You think they were better. But you tend to forget the ugly parts.
Rural Maryland used to be pretty — at least, as we remember it. Where we grew up, there were horse farms and tobacco farms. On the Eastern Shore, there were truck farms. As a child, we heard about u2018truck farms’ and wondered. If they could grow trucks over on the other side of the Chesapeake, why couldn’t we plant a few Fords or Chevvies on our place?
Growing trucks must be easier than farming tobacco, we were willing to bet. Tobacco was the world’s most disagreeable crop. It has resisted mechanization for 3 centuries. In the 1950s… as now… harvesting was done by hand. Our first job was working in the tobacco fields. We would get out at dawn and begin cutting down the plants. One by one, row by row, hour after hour.
The tobacco plants had to lie out in the sun for a while in order to relax. Then, we would work our way down each row… picking up each plant and spearing it onto a stick. This went on through the heat of the day, sweat running down our arms, and soaking our shirts… tobacco gum got all over our hands and clothes.
By the late afternoon, if we timed it right, we’d be ready to drive the tractor between the rows and throw the sticks — each with 5 or 6 plants on it — onto the trailer. Then, they’d be taken to the barn and hung up to dry.
It was miserable, exhausting and dirty work. But it was a living and a life for hundreds of thousands of people. Maybe it still is.
Once, an uncle was dying of cancer. We had all gathered at his house to say goodbye. Naturally, the conversation turned to what everybody did and what everybody knew: tobacco.
Suddenly, the dying man interrupted.
"They won’t be planting any tobacco where I’m going."
Being around a dying man can be awkward. You don’t know quite what to say. For a child it is almost frightening. You’re afraid to get too close for fear the dying man will take you with him.
An uneasy silence fell over the group of cousins. No one wanted to contradict our elderly uncle… but they didn’t want to acknowledge that he was a goner either.
But an aunt, her face red and creased from years of hard farm life, feared neither death nor dying. In fact, she feared no man either… and seemed almost on an equal footing with God himself.
"How the hell do you know what they’ll be doing?"
In a few minutes, all of us were speculating about planting tobacco in heaven and about the Great Reunion we would all enjoy some day as we gathered in those celestial fields to begin chopping down the plants.
Somehow, it all seems so rich… those memories, that is.
That time. That life.
But it is all gone.
We look out our car window and see houses where tobacco fields used to be. And where tobacco barns used to sit. Now they are little shopping malls, filled with commuters, picking up supplies on their way home from the office.
"Get this… you won’t believe it," continued our friend. "They’re now offering tax credits for preserving tobacco barns. You get paid to keep them up. The state decided they were kind of picturesque."
What was once function is now pure form. What was once real life… is now a fraud. Is it better, dear reader?
"I tell you, this tobacco stuff has gotten really crazy. The state legislature wants to stop people from growing tobacco. You know, everybody’s against smoking. So, they pay tobacco farmers not to grow the stuff. They want farmers to switch to growing Chardonnay grapes or something. Can you imagine any of our relatives doing such a thing? It’s absolutely wacky.
"You know, when we were growing up… nobody had a dime. You worked like a dog in the tobacco fields and if you were lucky, you could make a living at it. But then they came up with these crazy u2018land preservation’ deals. You could sell the development rights to your farm. It was great, because you were just agreeing not to do anything you weren’t already doing… you were agreeing not to cut up your farm and sell it as lots. Heck, who wanted to do that anyway… unless you were dying or something.
"So, you could sell the development rights for a couple thousand dollars an acre — I think it’s up to $5,000 or more per acre now — I don’t know, I haven’t kept up with it. But if you’ve got a 200-acre farm, you’ve got a cool million bucks… for doing nothing different.
"And then they come along and pay you not to grow tobacco at all. They pay you based upon what you were getting from it. So, if you had earned $50,000 a year growing tobacco last year, they’d pay you — I don’t know — maybe $40,000 a year not to grow it. And then, to top it all off, they give you a tax credit to fix up your tobacco barn so you’ll have a place to put the tobacco they’re paying you not to grow. It’s crazy."
Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.