UNIONTOWN -- Bob Bounds' soybeans, like those of other farmers around the state, are in a race for their life against fall's first killer frost.
In a rolling field of dark green knee-high bean plants still wet from the night's dew, Mr. Bounds bends down and pulls one from the soil. "Look here," he said, holding out a 2-inch bean pod. "It's the 24th of September and the pods are still flat. They should have beans in them by this time."
Part of his bean crop may not reach maturity until the end of October or early November, he estimates. That may be too late.
A killer frost, which Mr. Bounds describes as a temperature of 28 degrees or colder for a period of two to four hours, can destroy the beans on the vine. The beans will suffer the same fate as green tomatoes in backyard gardens -- they will never ripen.
In Maryland alone, this could mean a loss of $40 million or more for soybean farmers.
Last year's bean crop had a value of about $95 million, said M. Bruce West, chief statistician for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "Double crop" beans, such as Mr. Bounds', usually account for about 45 percent of the total harvest.
Double crop describes soybeans usually planted in late June or early July following the harvest of winter wheat or barley.
The frost threat stems from this year's unusually cool growing season. Mr. Bounds was about two weeks late getting his double crop beans in the ground because the cool spring delayed the growth -- and the harvest -- of winter wheat. Then the cool summer slowed the development of soybeans he planted after clearing his fields of wheat.
"Beans love hot, muggy weather," Mr. Bounds said. "They grow best when temperatures are in the 80s and 90s."
Mr. Bounds got a real scare Thursday morning when the reading on his farm thermometer dipped to 35 degrees.
"We're down in a hollow. It was probably five to seven degrees warmer in town," he said, referring to Uniontown, about a mile away.
The 51-year-old farmer's records show that the first serious frost is likely to occur in mid-October. "Some years," he said, "it's not until the first of November."
There are no guarantees, though. He remembers a frost in the mid-1970s that killed the full-season beans along with the double crop.
The danger is probably not as great as it seemed a month ago, saidMr. West, who thinks beans have recovered from their slow start. "If we're lucky enough to get through Oct. 15, we've probably got it whipped."
David Green, the University of Maryland extension agent in Carroll County, said the situation "looks iffy" in his region. If frost comes in mid-October, he said, yields will likely be 20 bushels an acre, down from the normal output of 25 bushels an acre.
"That's if we're lucky," he added. "If we not lucky, it could be 15."
Marion Leaverton, who planted more than 400 acres of soybeans on his Eastern Shore farm near Wye Mills, said: "We're OK if we have no frost to speak of until Oct. 20 or the first of November. But if we have frost before then, we could be in bad trouble."
Maryland farmers who lose their beans to a frost could be in line for financial assistance, said James C. Richardson, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. He noted, however, that farmers would have to show a 40 percent loss calculated on the farm's total production, including full season beans.
"It's the strength of your faith that brings you through difficult times like these," said Mr. Bounds, a religious man who has created an outdoor sanctuary in a wooded section of his farm. Neighbors gather for services and picnic lunches there.
"God has put something in these beans to give them the ability to catch up. He can say, 'OK boys, let's pick it up.' "