In answer to many farmers' prayers, the skies turned gray and a series of life-giving, grass-greening showers worked their way across much of Maryland yesterday.
The rain -- an inch or more in some parts of the state -- revived lawns and vegetable gardens. It may prove to be a real blessing for parched pasturelands and soybean crops, but it came too late to rescue corn that was planted in the spring, especially in Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties, the counties hardest hit by the drought.
"It's strange," laughed Robert L. Walker, Maryland's Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, "but it seems like it has rained every day since they said it was a drought."
Last Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland Emergency Board began the process of having the federal government declare much of the state a drought disaster region.
Following up on the board's findings that Maryland farmers had experienced more than $57 million in crop damage, Gov. William Donald Schaefer wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan asking that eight counties be designated drought disaster regions. If the eight receive the designation, adjacent counties would also qualify, making farmers in 19 counties eligible for relief.
Rain or no rain, the state is going ahead with its federal relief request. "We're still going for all we can get," said Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for the governor.
A drought disaster designation means farmers could qualify for low-interest loans from the Farmers Home Administration and buy surplus government grain at below market prices.
Jan Staley, who heads the USDA's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service office in Frederick County, said that her home near Uniontown got an inch of rain yesterday. She said that it would go a long way toward making her lawn greener but was no help to her neighbor's cornfield, where drought damage was beyond repair.
"It won't help the early corn -- it's already beyond the tasseling stage -- but it could be a big help to the late corn" that was planted in early July after fields of wheat or barley had been harvested, she said. Unfortunately, said Ms. Staley, the spring planting accounts for 75 percent to 80 percent of the crop.
According to figures compiled by the Maryland Emergency Board, Frederick County has suffered the brunt of Mother Nature's wrath this summer. Crop damage there was placed at more than $18 million. The board estimated that 50 percent of the county's corn had been lost, along with half the hay, 35 percent of the alfalfa and 30 percent of the soybeans. Three-quarters of the county's pasture land was parched and unfit for livestock grazing.
James C. Richardson, head of the Emergency Board, said last week that the damage assessment was based on the loss of crops that could not be saved even if rain came. He said the figure could only go higher.
M. Bruce West, head of the Maryland Crop Reporting Service, said that the rains of the past few days "have helped a lot of crops quite a bit, especially the soybeans. They could have saved the soybeans, at least for the time being."
Mr. West said that the showers, which touched just about every region of the state except the extreme western counties, "would certainly be good for the pastures and could help the hay. Farmers are hoping that the fields will bounce back for a third cutting of hay, but it will probably be very light."