Farmers Watch Crop Yield Evaporate In Dry Weather

August 04, 1991|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff writer

There is one good thing Harford farming experts have to say about this summer's hot, dry weather: alfalfa.

"The dry weather we had wasreally good for alfalfa," said Robert Halman, the University of Maryland agricultural extension agent for Harford County. "We might get afourth or fifth cutting."

But other crops have not been so fortunate. Even with the help ofrecent rain, most Harford crops are expected to yield 15 to 20 percent less than usual, said Halman. Rainfall so far this season is about50 percent lower than last summer, said Halman.

"The main reason we're not a disaster area is that we got some of those spotty rains, but we're not going to have a good yield," said Halman. "For example,farmers who last year got an average of 115 bushels an acre of corn,this year will get 90 bushels."

Forest Hill farmer Donald M. Hoopes said he already is experiencing that loss.

"The other day I walked two acres of sweet corn, where normally I get several hundred dozen ears -- and I got about five dozen," said Hoopes. He owns a 137-acre Forest Hill orchard and farm where he grows corn, other vegetablesand peaches. "Between the drought and the deer, there wasn't a lot to pull."

The recent scattered rainfall will help some of his peachcrop grow to proper size.

"The little rain we have gotten has come at the right time to size most of them up," said Hoopes. "As far aspeaches go, it's a bumper crop. But the vegetables didn't have the early rains to make the plants grow to produce what they should."

Jimmie Miller, a Darlington dairy farmer, said the rain also helped the corn he grows to feed his dairy cows.

"We were blessed. The weekour corn pollinated we had rain and cloudy weather," said Miller, a farmer for 21 years.

But Miller said not all farmers were so luckybecause rainfall never falls evenly countywide. He said rainfall tends to occur along Harford's major waterways, such as the Susquehanna River, Deer Creek and other watershed areas.

"I'm in an area that had critical rains at critical times, but I have friends who might lose half their crop because they haven't had rain when we've had rain," said Miller.

Near Aberdeen, the lack of rainfall has had a particularly harsh effect on farms because the area's sandy soil retains less water than soil in other sections of Harford, said Wilbur Brown Pearce, a Perryman farmer who raises field corn, soybeans, peas and wheat.

"It's the most unusual year since we've been farming," said Pearce.

"It was exceptionally wet at the beginning, and later it got hot and dry. The extremely wet weather made it hard to apply lime and fertilizer, and the dry weather made it hard to plant. Then we didn't have the rain to take the herbicides and fertilizers down to the roots. The earliest corn we planted is hurt the most -- it won't makehalf a crop."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has declared 19 of Maryland's 23 counties eligible for federal disaster relief as a result of the drought. Only Cecil, Caroline, Wicomico and Worcester countiesaren't eligible.

It marks the fifth time in 10 years that Maryland farmers have been affected by severe drought.

Although not officially declared a disaster area, Harford farmers could receive financial relief if neighboring counties, including counties in Pennsylvania, have been declared federal disaster areas, said John O'Neill, Harford's procurement director.

The disaster area designation allows farmers in those counties to apply for low-interest loans from the federal Farmers Home Administration, O'Neill said. The loans, for farmersturned down by commercial lenders, would be available at 4.5 percentinterest and would cover portions of losses up to $500,000.

Not only do farmers have to contend with low crop yields this year, they also must face falling market prices, said Pearce.

"When you're talking about an average crop of 60 percent to 65 percent normal, that'sa pretty significant loss," said Pearce. "But with prices being down. . . I sold winter wheat for $2.78 a bushel. I was told that in 1933, the year I was born, the heart of the Depression, wheat sold for $3 a bushel. That's why farmers have a hard time surviving."

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