Tobacco farmers lament station closure

Associate Editor

MECHANICSVILLE, Md. (Oct. 4, 2016) — Southern Maryland tobacco farmers voiced frustration last week with the recent closure of a tobacco receiving station that requires them to haul their crop to Pennsylvania, increasing cost and transportation concerns.
The station, formerly operated by Philip Morris USA, was a welcome convenience for farmers who were able to deliver their crop locally instead of trucking it to a larger New Holland, Pa., receiving station more than 150 miles north of Mechanicsville, said several regional tobacco growers who declined to be named because they said they did not want to upset their contractual relationship with the Richmond, Va.-based cigarette maker.
“It’s just more aggravation. More miles,” said one farmer. “More transportation paid by the grower.”
Several farmers said they have to pay increased fuel costs to move their crop or hire someone to take it for them, which is more expensive and can create other complications. One farmer said he hired a driver who almost missed a delivery deadline at New Holland, which could have led to a lost crop and cost him between $10,000 to $30,000 or more.
“It’s not so much the resources,” he said. “You’re doing 140-some miles with an entire crop on your trailer. A lot can happen in that time.”
Time is another concern. A round trip to New Holland and back is a half-day’s work.
“Instead of hauling on the road we could be stripping tobacco or doing anything else, just trying to be more efficient,” one farmer said. “It’s such an inconvenience for the growers.”
The Mechanicsville station was open for about three years and was part of a test program that created several “mobile” receiving stations, said Steven Callahan, a spokesman for Altria, Philip Morris USA’s parent company. Cost was a factor in the station’s closure, he said.
“This Mechanicsville one lasted a little longer than some of the other tests that we did,” he said. “We just decided at the end of the day it made sense for the folks to go back to the original receiving stations.”
But once they deliver their tobacco to the New Holland facility, it’s trucked south to North Carolina where it’s processed, farmers said.
On its way, it passes through Southern Maryland where it was grown. Southern Maryland farmers said they wondered why it didn’t make more sense to just pick up their tobacco on the trip south. 
The Mechanicsville station was housed in a rented warehouse facility on Grove Farm Lane amid the area’s Amish population where tobacco cultivation remains strong.
Farmers said it was recently outfitted with new bathrooms and an office, and three local farmers managed operations. It received Maryland Type 32 and burley tobacco in a region known for the high quality of its crop, farmers said.
The vast majority of growers in the region are contracted to Philip Morris though some grow for Japanese Tobacco International, which also has a receiving station in New Holland.
Station closures have been a source of complaint among tobacco growers over the last decade.
Philip Morris USA angered some producers in 2012 when it closed a Midway, Tenn., receiving station that received up to 6 million pounds of burley tobacco a year. Some growers said they planned to sign with rival contractors with closer receiving operations.
But growers in Southern Maryland trucked their tobacco to New Holland before the Mechanicsville mobile station opened. They simply hope it will reopen, they said.
“I doubt it’s going to happen this buying season,” one farmer said. “I don’t know how they come to their decisions. They don’t tell us.”