State and federal agricultural officials today voted to urge Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer to declare six counties agricultural disaster areas because of crop losses caused by severe drought conditions.
The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service named Allegany, Frederick, Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties as the state's hardest hit parts. Its members recommended that farmers in those counties be made eligible for a variety of federal grazing, grain and loan programs.
Farmers in the counties adjoining these six also would be eligible for federal aid under federal law.
Surveys estimated crop losses of more than $57.5 million already this year, with a high likelihood of additional damage as the drought worsens. Losses ranged from as high as $18 million in Frederick County to $12 million in Carroll.
The recommendations to Schaefer are expected to be acted on within 10 days, said James C. Richardson, state executive director of the service.
Across Maryland's northern tier of counties, from Allegany to Cecil, the drought has been classified as "extreme." Pastures have gone dormant. The corn is stressed and curled. Some soybean plantings have stopped growing and only pond-fed irrigation is keeping vegetables from withering.
On the Eastern Shore, crop damage has not been as severe, but the hot weather killed more than 200,000 chickens over the weekend in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, said Jerry Truitt, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
"To put that in perspective, we have at any time on the Shore about 100 million birds," said Truitt. Spring heat waves, which are much harder on the chickens, have wiped out more than 1 million chickens.
"Of course, any loss is an economic impact," he said. The cost is figured at $2.50-$3 per chicken.
Meanwhile, in a preliminary assessment yesterday of the hard hit counties, Richardson had said: "The damage has been fairly localized. But we know we're in serious shape throughout the Piedmont."
"We have very serious problems in Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties. There are spots there looking the worst they've ever looked."
Pam Pahl helps her husband, Les, farm 160 acres of corn and vegetables in Granite, in western Baltimore County.
"The last significant rain we had was, like, May 20," she said.
"I'd say this is probably about as bad as [the drought] in '86," she said. "But in '86, we had no irrigation and we lost everything. It was a disaster for us."
Since then, the Pahls have grabbed opportunities to buy used irrigation machinery from failed farmers, and have installed three miles of underground pipe to prepare for the next drought.
So far, the gamble has worked. Pam Pahl said her family has kept its produce alive by irrigating virtually everything this summer, even the corn, at one point working the machinery 24 hours a day.
"It's been like Grand Central Station between my husband and me, with all the alarms going off," she said.
They got up at all hours to check the irrigation gear and to move pipes and spray guns. They spent hundreds of dollars on parts and burned up 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel for the pumps, at 90 cents a gallon.
"The irrigation has really saved us, but now it is getting critical," Pam Pahl said. The Pahls' heavy investment in irrigation has made it all the more imperative that their crops survive.
But the farm's three irrigation ponds are drying up. One is empty; a second was emptied, but has recovered about halfway. Two springs that feed them, however, are dry, and an intermittent stream is "just about dried up." Pam Pahl said the ponds won't be able to keep up with the watering if they are not recharged with rains.
Then, if more water can't be found -- perhaps by running a mile of pipe from the Patapsco River -- it could mean "economic disaster" for the family, she said.
The heat and drought were taking its toll on other farmers Pam Pahl spoke to at the Baltimore Farmer's Market last weekend.
"I've never seen farmers so disgusted, so aggravated," she said. "It's scary.
"Just trying to work all day out in this weather, with the tractor work, the picking to do ... You can't stay indoors [just] 'cause it's hot. Plus, emotionally, watching stuff dry up, it's hard," Pam Pahl said.
Up in White Hall, in northern Baltimore County, Wayne McGinnis farms 1,300 acres, almost half of it rented. A half-inch of rain two weeks ago is the only significant rain his crops have had since April.
His land is too irregular, and too far from water sources, for irrigation.
"The pasture is completely dormant now," he said yesterday. He has begun feeding his 150 dairy cows, and their 100 young, on hay that was harvested this spring and intended for use as cattle feed next winter.
"The hay we planted in the spring for next year looks very bad, too," he said. "It's died."
In his corn fields, the leaves on the stalks are curled as each plant tries to limit its loss of moisture to evaporation. That half-inch of rain that fell two weeks ago helped, McGinnis said, "but the next day the leaves curled back up."
"You need a good inch of rain to really soak in . . . to the root zone."
The corn is tasseling now, but without rain, the pollination will be only partly successful. That will reduce the number of kernels that develop on each ear. That reduces the crop's yield, and McGinnis' income.
"I would say right now we're at 50 percent normal yield," McGinnis said. That can't be recovered even if it does rain."
In the soybean fields, he said, "those planted earliest look the best." Sections planted later got enough rain to germinate and get a start, but now "they're just kind of sitting there."