Cash-poor farmers seeking drought aid from Congress Bartlett sponsors bill to help growers afford animal feed for winter

Relief is possible by Oct. 1

Shortage of rainfall, worst in 31 years, to cost about $17 million

September 18, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Faced with a loss of $17 million caused by the worst drought in 31 years, Carroll farmers are looking to the federal government for help.

An emergency feed bill working its way through Congress could provide drought-stressed farmers with free food supplies needed to get livestock through the winter. Help could come as early as Oct. 1.

"It would be good if it came tomorrow," said David L. Greene, agent with Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service. "It would mean immediate cash to buy feed."

Agriculture in Carroll generates about $110 million in annual revenue, but the drought has stunted that amount by at least 20 percent, Greene said. He listed the dismal statistics on the county's prevalent crops:

The corn crop loss has reached nearly 80 percent. Fields that normally yield 110 bushels per acre are producing about 22, with much of that unusable. Soybeans, helped a little by recent rains, will probably be 35 percent of the typical harvest.

"Farmers are getting 10 bushels of soybeans to an acre, where in other years they would get 30," Greene said.

Hay is nearly a total loss. This year, most farmers could not get second and third cuttings of hay from their parched fields and many have already depleted their first -- and only -- cutting, taken in June.

With dwindling feed reserves and no credit to buy what they did not grow, farmers have few options, Greene said. Without government help, many will give up, he said.

"Farmers normally raise the majority of the feed for their livestock," he said. "Because of the drought, they don't have feed, money or credit. They need this bill or a compassionate banker."

Republican 6th District Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the bill's sponsor, is confident he can marshal support for the measure, which is part of the 1998 agriculture appropriations bill, his aides said.

"We are hopeful that the agriculture bill with the Bartlett provision is feasible by Oct. 1," said Lisa Wright, spokeswoman for Bartlett, who is also a Frederick County farmer. "This is the fastest way for aid to get to farmers who are strapped now and facing the greatest challenge for winter feed."

Congress enacted a similar emergency program in June for farmers in South Dakota, which was devastated by spring floods. Farmers there received a subsidy to purchase feed for their livestock.

This month, as Congress reconvened from its summer recess, )) Bartlett had his staff draft legislation for Maryland similar to the South Dakota law.

The legislation is vital to the many farmers who cannot afford soaring prices for hay, normally about $150 a ton but selling for twice that amount, Greene said.

"Hay is available because the drought was not widespread," said Greene, who has prepared a resource directory for local farmers. "But the supply is down, and the price is high."

Frederick County Farm Bureau has organized a tri-county hay lift with donated supplies, but the waiting list is long and growing.

The Aug. 8 disaster designation, federally enacted for 12 Maryland counties, enables farmers to apply for low-interest loans through the federal Farm Service Agency, but only after they have exhausted other lending options.

"Many of the existing programs are not meeting the needs of farmers," said Wright.

Applicants also must have 150 percent collateral, an impossible requirement particularly for cash-strapped new farmers.

"Hardly anyone is taking advantage of the loan programs," Greene said. "There are too many strings attached. They are just not workable."

If the Bartlett bill passes, qualifying for assistance would be less complicated. Farmers would have to submit an inventory of livestock and the total feed they have on hand to the local Farm Service Agency office.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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