Drought's fallout will be felt for years Aftermath: Long, dry summer may mean losses for farmers and agriculture support companies, and layoffs.

October 05, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Just off Woodbine Road in the Howard County community of Lisbon, emerald hills frame 100 acres of churned dirt where wilted cornstalks once stood. Farmer Gene Mullinix harvested that crop -- one of his poorest -- three weeks early to feed his cattle this winter.

"That corn did all it could do," said Mullinix, 56. "This is the worst drought I've ever seen. I won't stop feeling its effects for a year."

All data -- rainfall records, stream flow charts, crop destruction figures -- confirm Mullinix's observations that this summer's drought was among the worst. And those few parched months have left many Maryland farmers facing decisions that will affect their way of life forever. Do they sell prized dairy cows? Do they leave their grandfather's trade altogether?

The late-August rains that soaked the region did little for these farmers. While suburban lawns thrive, farmers still see withered stalks of grain, empty silos and bushels of bills approaching.

Normally, Mullinix would have waited for the corncobs to ripen, then used that grain to fatten his 300 cattle. But this year, Mullinix harvested the crop, stalks and all, early -- before moisture entered the grain -- and will churn that into silage, hoping it will be enough to feed his herd.

Mullinix's situation offers an example of what will happen to an industry that experts say will lose an estimated $135 million in Maryland. State farmers have seen a 60 percent reduction in corn production and an almost 30 percent decline in soybeans.

Chain reaction

Those numbers are only the first link in a chain reaction that affects farmers such as Mullinix.

First, the drought ruined 50 percent of Mullinix's corn crop, which he uses as livestock feed. In neighboring Carroll and Frederick counties, the destruction reached 80 percent. Usually, Mullinix harvests enough to sell to others. This year, he'll be forced to buy about 30,000 bushels to feed his herd.

But the money needed to buy that feed could be scarce because his $15 million grain-processing business -- which usually handles 3 million bushels of grain for mid-Atlantic farmers -- will find its silos two-thirds empty because crops were so poor.

And revenue could be cut in half for another Mullinix enterprise -- his $2.5 million fertilizer business -- because the weak crops didn't consume the soil's nutrients. So when farmers plant next spring, they won't need to boost nitrogen and phosphate levels.

The bottom line: To get through the winter, Mullinix will probably lay off about 15 part-time workers, leaving him with about 30 full-time employees.

"I'll tinker where I can," he said. "But the taxes, insurance, overhead, they're not going anywhere."

Making ends meet

Officials say farmers will be doing a lot of book juggling as they try to find ways to make up for shortfalls, especially dairy farmers who are heading into winter without enough feed for their herds.

Some will probably plant cover crops that can grow this fall on their still nutrient-rich land, crops that would help feed their cattle in January and February. Planting barley, wheat and rye requires money, and many farmers applied for the $2 million in state aid available to help. But others weren't so lucky.

Howard County farmer Jay Rhine said he will plant rye for his 350 cattle even though he won't get state aid because his application arrived too late, he said.

"I'm not in that bad of shape," said Rhine, 21. "If I don't get the rye in the ground, I'm going to be in trouble."

'Changing the way they farm'

Other farmers in Frederick and Carroll counties are feeling a similar pinch and experts say farmers might sell farms or switch crops to cope.

"Farmers are a pretty optimistic bunch," said David L. Greene, an agent with the Carroll County Extension Service. "No one has left because of the drought yet. But some are changing the way they farm."

Donald Savage, a Carroll County farmer in Mount Airy, has sold his prized milking herd because the drought destroyed his corn crop, giving him about 9 tons of feed an acre instead of the usual 20. His hay crop was similarly affected, and he would have had to buy supplies elsewhere to feed his herd.

"My hay was so short I could mow it," said Savage, 57. "To survive, I'd have to start buying hay and corn, but the quality would be terrible. Selling my milking cows was the only thing I could do."

While still unsure whether he'll milk his young calves when they mature or find another type of agriculture, Savage has closed the door on another option: federal low-interest loans.

"I have too much cash to qualify for them," Savage said.

Similar story

In Frederick County, the story is similar.

The federal Farm Service Agency there has had few inquiries about loans and doesn't expect more until crops are harvested late this month, said Sandy Nicholoson, acting director of the Frederick County FSA.

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