As corn crop wilts under heat, state to seek federal aid Damage severe on Eastern Shore

July 17, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

The hot, dry summer has taken a heavy toll on Maryland's corn crop, the head of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Maryland Emergency Board said yesterday as he began the paperwork that is expected to qualify nearly the entire state for federal drought disaster relief.

"Damage to the corn crop is particularly serious on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland," said James M. Voss, head of the emergency board and director of the federal Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in Columbia. The service is responsible for collecting the field information necessary for a region to be declared a federal disaster area.

Based on crop surveys done this week, Mr. Voss concluded that "there is a high possibility" that all but three counties -- Allegany, Garrett and Washington -- will qualify for federal assistance.

Although damage varies from county to county and sometimes from field to field, Mr. Voss said surveys showed corn crop losses in some regions of the state exceeding 50 percent.

"Caroline County has been hit real hard," he said. Dividing the crop there into quarters, he said 25 percent was destroyed; 25 percent had suffered a 75 percent loss; and 25 percent had suffered a 50 percent loss. The rest, he said, suffered losses of less than 50 percent.

He said the counties along the Pennsylvania border have fared better because they received more rain. But, he added, they have suffered some damage from the high temperatures.

Mr. Voss said that counties contiguous to those that have suffered the 40 percent loss that is necessary to qualify as disaster regions also qualify for the designation. He said yesterday that he would send the damage information to the state Agriculture Department later in the day.

"The governor will have sufficient information to make the request" for disaster relief to President Clinton, he said. "There is no need for us to go back in the fields and get new figures."

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said the state would move rapidly to request federal relief. Gov. William Donald Schaefer and state Agriculture Secretary Robert L. Walker left yesterday on a trade mission to Mexico.

Mr. Riley said the governor was eager to contact the president and Congress as soon as possible about the problem in Maryland and hoped that it could be included in any emergency aid package designed to help flood victims in the Midwest.

"If necessary," Mr. Riley said, "the governor could send a letter to President Clinton before he returns on Tuesday."

During a visit to a Wicomico County farm on Thursday to assess the drought damage, Governor Schaefer stood next to some corn stalks that came up only to his chest. With normal rainfall, they would have towered over him, each 8 or 9 feet high.

Wayne Staff, the county extension agent, said much of the Eastern Shore received little, if any, rain over the past five weeks.

He said the 100-degree temperatures "cooked the tassels on the corn, halting the pollination process, destroying the corn."

Overall, Mr. Voss said, Kent County lost 40 percent of its corn, Queen Anne's 50 percent and Talbot 40 percent.

Soybean losses, he said, ranged from 10 percent in Montgomery County to 50 percent in Caroline.

The bulk of Maryland corn and soybeans go to the poultry industry and to feed livestock. Mr. Walker said the drought would likely result in consumers paying higher prices for chicken and other meats at the supermarket.

Shoppers can also expect to pay more for beans, sweet corn, squash and other vegetables from roadside markets because the yield is expected to shrink, Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Voss estimated a loss of 25 percent to 50 percent in the vegetable crops on the Eastern Shore and said 35 percent of Wicomico County's watermelon and cantaloupe harvest fell victim to the drought.

No dollar figure was placed on the crop damage yesterday, but M. Bruce West, a USDA official, said a 30 percent decline in the average corn yield would translate into $25 million in lost sales to Maryland farmers.

If yields were off 40 percent, he said, farmers stood to lose $40 million. A 30 percent reduction in the size of the soybean harvest would amount to $40 million in lost sales.

Mr. Voss said that most counties already qualify for the USDA's emergency feed program that assists farmers in buying grain for livestock.

Other aid to farmers, such as grants and low-interest loans, he said, would have to await Mr. Clinton's designation of the region as a drought disaster area.

The rains that passed through much of the state Thursday night came a week too late. "If we had gotten that rain a week earlier," Mr. Voss said, "there would only have been about half as much damage."

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