Showers and thunderstorms today and tomorrow are expected to bring some relief to Maryland farmers battered by drought.
But the dry weather this spring and summer already has cost growers an estimated $57.6 million in crop damage, and agriculture officials yesterday asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer to make disaster aid available to farmers in 16 counties.
Rain that moved in from Virginia today could bring parts of the state more than an inch of precipitation, said Bill Miller, a National Weather Service forecaster at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The air mass that moved in overnight "is pretty saturated with precipitation and should help to relieve the dry conditions here," Miller said.
A series of strong thunderstorms with very heavy rain, hail, damaging winds and lightning rolled across the central Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and Anne Arundel County today.
BWI recorded 0.43 inches of rain by midday. Forecaster Bob Melrose said the showers and storms "will be popping up all day."
Two storms in Arundel cut off power to 7,800 customers in northern and central Arundel. BG&E lightning detectors counted almost 1,000 lightning strikes between 4 and 5 a.m. Fewer than 1,300 customers were still without power at midday.
The storm delayed air traffic for a time, Melrose said. Lightning in Pasadena and Severna Park put many traffic signals on "flash" and toppled a tree across Fort Smallwood Road near Hilltop Road. But police reported no major traffic tangles.
The official weather service forecast was for an 80 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms for the rest of this afternoon, dropping to 50 percent tonight and tomorrow. The highs tomorrow through Monday will be about 85 degrees, bringing an end to a nearly two-week stretch of 90-degree-plus days.
Despite the rainfall, officials still are worried about the effects the drought has had on agriculture.
State and federal agriculture representatives, meeting yesterday as the joint State Emergency Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommended Allegany, Frederick, Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties for designation by the governor as disaster areas. Losses there total $36.2 million, with another $21.4 million in the rest of the state.
Paige Boinest, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Schaefer plans to go to Frederick County tomorrow and to visit a farm while there. He will assess the situation and decide whether to make disaster aid available to farmers, Boinest said.
If Schaefer agrees to designate those six counties as disaster areas, and the U.S. secretary of agriculture concurs, farmers in those counties will become eligible for low-cost loans from the Farmers Home Administration if they are unable to get commercial bank loans.
Under federal law, farmers in 10 additional counties adjoining the disaster area -- either directly or across the bay -- would also
become eligible for aid.
Disaster assistance loans would be available at 4 1/2 percent, about half the commercial rate, and could be as high as NTC $500,000, or the amount of the losses, whichever is less.
"This is Round 1," said James C. Richardson, state executive director of the USDA's Stabilization and Conservation Service, and chairman of the Emergency Board. If the drought continues, he said, additional counties may be recommended for designation as agricultural disaster areas.
The Emergency Board action already has triggered a federal process by which the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be asked to approve emergency haying, grazing and feeding privileges for farmers in the affected areas, Richardson said.
Under those programs, farmers would be allowed to cut hay and graze livestock on land otherwise idled under federal set-aside programs. They also would be eligible to purchase emergency feed at half the going market price from supplies managed under the federal Commodities Credit Corp.
Across Maryland's worst-hit counties, pastures have gone dormant. The corn is stressed and curled. Soybean plantings have stopped growing and only irrigation is saving vegetables.
A good soaking rain might save some soybeans but for the corn, grains, pasture, hay and alfalfa, he said, "the only way to go is up for the losses and down for the yields."
Unless they have been irrigated, vegetable crops are lost, he said.
Richardson characterized the 1991 drought as "very serious" in the hardest-hit counties and worse there than droughts of 1987 and 1988.
Norman Astle, spokesman for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said he did not believe that the drought, by itself, would drive any Maryland farmers out of business.
"But it may certainly be a catalyst," he said. In combination with crop prices and other issues, some farmers who suffer serious drought losses "may decide to hang it up."
Much of the drought's impact, Astle said, may not come until next winter or spring, when the failure of this summer's crops translates into a lack of winter feed for dairy cattle and other livestock.