For farmers beyond the reach of Baltimore's reservoir-fed water supplies, withering heat and lack of rain threaten economic disaster.
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.
State agriculture officials were assessing the damage today, and preparing to make recommendations to the governor for possible aid to the affected areas.
In a preliminary assessment yesterday, James Richardson, director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, 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.
An isolated shower on Saturday unexpectedly dropped a
half-inch of rain on the Pahls' fields. Before that, "the stuff looked so sick, it was upsetting," she said.
But the relief lasted barely a day.
"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 costly 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 have 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," he said.
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.
In the soy bean 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."
McGinnis said his hope now is that as word of the crop losses spreads through the media, that grain prices will climb and cushion the blow.
"But I don't think it will be that much to make up for the loss of yield," he said.