IT HAD RAINED THE NIGHT BEFORE — "an inch-and-a-half," Jim Welling says -- but you'd never know it. The day is hot and dry and the earth looks like it has been parched for months -- which it has.
"I'm hoping it saved the beans," says Welling, talking about one of the few rains this summer to visit his 220-acre farm off Underwood and Old Frederick roads near Sykesville.
He has lost 50 percent of his corn to the five-month drought and the 12-acre hay crop he planted yielded only 47 bales. He usually gets that from one acre, he says.
As for the soybeans, "they are only10 to 12 inches high and should be up to my knees," Welling says. "It will be a 20- to 25-bushel crop if that. These are the worst crops I've ever seen."
Other farmers across the county, from Fulton to the county line at Sykesville, tell a similar story. Charles C. Feaga,Richard P. Pue and Richard Warfield have lost half their corn and may lose more than a third of soybeans. Their fields are so dry that their cattle are eating winter reserves. All say they will survive thisyear, but they are not making any bets on next.
Welling, 59, has been farming in Howard County for 40 years. The youngest of five children, he says he is the only family mem
ber to have stuck with it,farming his 220 acres and leasing another 100. Ordinarily, he would have had one or two cash crops by now. This year, he has none. "I canrough it, but I wouldn't want to see a couple of years like this," he says.
His cash crops depleted, Welling is "just planting for next year" and trying to keep 60 to 80 beef cattle "in the fat pen."
Because of the drought, "there is no pasture at all," he says. His brood herd and 68 calves are already eating winter feed. Rather than spend money on spraying for spider mites, Welling is chopping down his 152 acres of corn three or four weeks early.
"If I had 500 to 600 acres, I'd worry," Welling says. "That would be an awful bill to pay.Your cash outlay in the spring -- $20,000 for fertilizer alone -- could eat you up this fall."
Rick Warfield, who has been farming 1,300 acres at Route 108 and Shepherd Lane in the heart of the county since his father died 15 years ago, admits to being a trifle worried. He says the effects of the drought may not be too severe, but says he can't really tell until the corn is harvested. He says this despite acorn crop that is only "50 percent of what it could have been" and soybean fields that "look awful."
Warfield, 29, planted 800 acres of corn, 300 acres of soybeans and the remainder in barley, wheat and hay.
Rains such as those that occurred recently are too little toolate, he says. The water runs off in 45 minutes, he says, because "there is nothing to hold it. The moisture is only about an inch below the surface."
Lack of moisture is only one of Warfield's problems.An early frost could hurt the soybeans, fall rains could further damage his white corn crop, falling prices could adversely affect his feed grain sales and development could leave him with less acreage nextyear, he says.
If the white corn becomes too stressed by drought,it can develop a cancerous toxin that makes it unusable, Warfield says. Once the toxin has begun, rains only make it worse, he says, adding he won't know how much damage has been done until he harvests the white corn in October.
"When you raise half a crop and then can't get anything for it, it's that much worse," he says. "The prices you receive today are what my father and grandfather got in the '40s. If you owe a lot of money . . ."
Warfield, standing outside his barn,never finishes the thought. He turns and looks at some nearby feed corn, stunted and burnt out. "I generally raise more corn than soybeans, but you never know from year to year" what crop will do best, he says.
He could build the soil by putting down fertilizer and lime acouple of years before planting, but says he hesitates to do so because land leased for farming may be developed before it can be planted. "You try to be careful about what you spend. We're a family farm. If it's real bad, we don't pay ourselves as much."
County Council member Charlie Feaga, who has been farming 200 acres at Route 144 and Marriottsville Road for 41 years, says the cost of planting corn is "a considerable investment not counting other crops" -- about $240 an acre. "Unless you have another occupation, it's difficult to make a living," he says.
Like Welling and Warfield, Feaga says his feed corn crop is a failure. A bigger problem, he says, is that this is the third year in the last 10 in which county farmers have suffered severe drought.
"There is no profit left in farming in that period of time," Feaga says. "What is sad is that some farmers are planting lessto cut losses. That is not good economics. A lot of farmers have dropped health insurance and stopped buying needed equipment in order tokeep their land. If the drought is like this next year, some farmerswill definitely cease operations."