Official shares Md. farmers' pain

'ONE OF OUR WORST DROUGHTS' U.S.

August 09, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Wye Mills -- James Voss ambles into a cornfield where many of the stalks that should be 7 feet tall barely reach his chest. Some have lost their grip on the dry, sandy soil and are lying on the ground.

Instead of being lush green, the stalks are dry and brown as they normally might be at Halloween. On most stalks, there's no ear of corn. With the toe of his shoe, Mr. Voss kicks away the hard crust of topsoil at a field just off Route 404 and begins digging into the powdery soil with his hand.

"There's no moisture at all, even when you dig six inches down. I would say this field is a total loss and it's typical of most on the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland," said the 60-year-old Caroline County resident picked by President Clinton to head the Agriculture Department's office in Maryland.

"I can't say this drought is worse than the one in '73," he continued, shaking his head, "but this has to be one of our worst droughts in a long, long time."

Mr. Voss is the new executive director of the USDA's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) office in Maryland, handling most of the department's money matters in the state, including emergency relief and price support payments. It's a job he first held during the Carter administration.

Back at his office in Columbia, where he has been collecting damage assessment reports from across the state, a pained expression moves across Mr. Voss' face as he talks about the drought worsening day by day.

He talks about soybean plants drying out and dying on farms surrounding his home near Denton. "This is something I've only seen once or twice in my entire farming career," he said. "It has really got to be dry for that to happen."

Mr. Voss' experience dates to a time when he helped his father plow the fields with a team of mules. He recalls when his neighbor got the first tractor in Caroline County.

He grew up as the only child on a 90-acre farm run by his father near Denton.

"It was a general farm, like most of the others throughout the state at that time. We raised corn, hay, wheat and we had a small dairy herd," he said.

He met his wife, the former Nancy Caskey of Linthicum, while attending Western Maryland College, where he majored in mathematics.

When he graduated in 1953, Mr. Voss had all the qualifications needed for a $2,800-a-year job teaching school in Caroline County. But he went back to the family farm that had been expanded to a 250-acre spread.

His first involvement with the ASCS came in the mid-1960s when he was appointed to a three-member state ASCS committee. It was a part-time position that involved about three days of work each month.

But it led to a better-paying job of $9,000 a year when he became head of the Caroline County ASCS office, a position he held until he was named executive director of the state ASCS office in 1977.

He calls this job one of the most rewarding of his career, "because I worked directly with the farmers." He recalled one hailstorm that wiped out a big part of the wheat and barley harvest. "I felt good to help them recover their out-of-pocket costs of putting in the crop. That was probably the most meaningful time."

When President Carter was defeated in 1980, Mr. Voss took a job with the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Office of Resource Conservation, a newly created agency that was part of Gov. Harry Hughes' initiative to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

His background made Mr. Voss a logical choice when President Clinton filled the state ASCS post in April. He welcomes the assignment, but regrets that it comes in such a difficult year for farmers.

Mr. Voss said conditions have deteriorated considerably since Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his agriculture secretary, Robert L. Walker, toured a drought-stricken farm on the Eastern Shore during mid-July.

"Fifteen of 23 counties have been seriously impacted by the heat and lack of rain. It's been severe in every county except those along the Pennsylvania border," Mr. Voss said.

In his new job, Mr. Voss' most immediate chore is to get an accurate reading on the impact of the hot, dry summer on farms. Although the final damage assessment reports are not due into his office until the end of this week , Governor Schaefer has already sent a letter to President Clinton and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy pointing out that Maryland farmers have already experienced millions of dollars in crop damage.

The governor uses the data collected by the ASCS office to request emergency drought relief.

Comparing field conditions last week with the situation in mid-July when his office first began assessing the damage, Mr. Voss said the corn loss in Queen Anne's County has increased to 75 percent from 50 percent.

In Wicomico and Somerset counties, the latest surveys showed corn loss has risen to 50 percent from 30 percent.

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