Crops devastated by long drought

DOWN ON THE FARM, ONE DRY SEASON

August 16, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Chaptico -- By almost anybody's standard, Luther Wolfe has a right to complain.

As a cool midafternoon breeze comes off the Wicomico River, it sweeps across his cornfield, rattling the dry, broken and sun-bleached stalks of a crop that he was counting on to bring him close to $37,000.

Now it will bring him nothing but debt.

Despite the financial setback, members of the Wolfe family, typical of so many other farmers throughout Maryland, will tell you they're lucky. They feel blessed.

"It has a lot to do with what we have been seeing on television this summer," Luther's wife, Linda, says. "That flood -- what those people in the Midwest are going through is horrible. Many of them are ruined for life.

"We still have our home. We still have our family and for that we thank God," adds Mrs. Wolfe, sitting at the table on the screened porch where the family -- daughters Julie, 22, and Laura, 19, and a son, Robert, 18 -- share many of their summer meals. "Sure, we lost a crop and it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt a lot, but we're going to have another crop next year. We're in good shape, compared to those poor people."

At a time when thousands elsewhere have been ravaged by the devastating floods of 1993, Maryland farmers, especially those in the southern part of the state and on the Eastern Shore, are suffering through one of the most serious droughts they can recall.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its latest damage assessment report this week, it is expected to show that 15 of Maryland's 23 counties have suffered severe drought damage. All but the three westernmost counties are expected to qualify for federal disaster relief.

"I kept telling Luther, 'Don't worry, the rain will come,' " Mrs. Wolfe says. " 'It will rain before its too late. It always does.' But not this year."

"I can't remember a drought this bad," adds Luther Wolfe, 53, as he strolls along the dusty dirt lane leading to the family's three-bedroom ranch house, which is perched on a knoll overlooking the river. "I was talking to one of my neighbors the other day and he recalls back in the '30s when it was this dry."

Mr. Wolfe stops to examine corn plants. They should be lush and green this time of year, but they are as papery and yellow as they would normally be in late autumn.

He shakes his head.

"Look at this -- it just cooked in the field. It didn't even make ears," Mr. Wolfe says. "This is pretty much a total loss."

Later in the day, while sitting at the porch table with his wife, Mr. Wolfe uses a calculator to estimate the drought damage to the 500 acres he farms in this northwestern part of St. Mary's County.

The numbers are higher than many of his newer neighbors might imagine as they drive past the Wolfe farm on their way to jobs in downtown Washington.

He pushes back on his head the green baseball cap with a Pioneer Seed Co. logo and begins pecking at the buttons of the small calculator. "Let's see, that's $59 an acre for fertilizer, $20 for seed, $20 for weed control chemicals and $25 for a side dressing of nitrogen we apply in mid-June."

Before he can multiply the cost per acre by the number of acres planted, Linda Wolfe leans forward places her hand on his shoulder and kiddingly warns: "Maybe we shouldn't do this; it could be too depressing."

For the corn crop alone, the numbers add up to $18,600. "And that's a conservative figure," Mr. Wolfe says. "It doesn't include fuel cost, machinery or the rent of land" that he farms in addition to his own 270-spread.

There's another $12,000 invested in a soybean crop.

In a normal year, the farm would net between $35,000 and $40,000 from gross sales of about $130,000. This year, "if I'm lucky," Mr. Wolfe says, he will bank half that -- maybe less.

BBack in the field, Molly, the family dog, darts ahead of Mr. Wolfe as she pursues a butterfly fluttering just above her highest leaps. The 6-acre plot is covered not with double-crop soybeans but with weeds nearly as high as the dog and with the stubs of the winter wheat harvest.

"It was too dry back in early July to plant," Mr. Wolfe says of the period when the seed should have gone into the ground. "They wouldn't have germinated. We decided not to even plant this field."

On the opposite side of the lane, where he did plant, there is little to show for his work.

"These plants should be waist- high by now," Mr. Wolfe says. Instead, they barely reach his knees.

Part of the problem is that the bean plants are competing with the weeds for whatever nourishment there is in the dry soil. That's because the fields never received enough rain over the past two months to activate the weed-killing herbicides he spread earlier in the growing season.

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