Finding hope in a haystack Aid: Frederick County hay lifts are helping farmers hurt by the driest summer in three decades.

October 10, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

For the second time in his 75 years, a drought has forced James Grumbine to ask for government help. The Unionville farmer drove to Fort Detrick yesterday, ready to load 100-pound bales of free hay onto a flatbed truck.

Since early September, Frederick County has offered an emergency hay lift to hard-pressed farmers who are reeling from the driest summer in three decades. So far, about 160 tons of hay -- a commodity that has become as scarce as rain in Western Maryland -- have come from Southern Maryland and Eastern Shore farms.

Grumbine, getting his first shipment, needed at least 20 bales to fatten his herd of 50 beef cattle. He got nine bales and a promise of more from the county office of emergency management.

"We keep hearing, 'I can make it with help,' from our farmers," said John W. Droneburg, county director of public safety and emergency management. "We are giving that help. Right now, RTC we don't have anybody who can't feed their animals through the month."

Farmers like Grumbine say the worst harvest since 1966 has left them with two choices -- lose their farms or accept a handout.

"Most farmers are rather reluctant to participate in a giveaway," said David L. Greene, an agent with the Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service. "It is a matter of pride and quality of the product, but there is a tremendous need for hay."

Frederick, like Carroll and Washington counties, faces crop losses as high as 70 percent.

"Our fields are burnt up. We didn't get a thing from them," said Dorothy Todd of Frederick. "We can't find hay anywhere."

Many cannot afford the $200-per-ton cost of hay -- twice the normal price for this time of year. Frederick is the only county to organize a giveaway. With donated labor, transportation and hay, the program hasn't cost the county anything, Droneburg said.

"The effort is unique in that a county government is heading the operation," said Tony Evans, drought officer with the state Department of Agriculture. "They have been aggressive in making the need known. We are asking them to talk to contiguous counties, explaining what they have done and how."

The hay lift started Sept. 3 at Fort Detrick outside Frederick. Bales donated from Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore were transported by truckers who otherwise would have had no loads on their return trips to the city.

Soldiers are spending their days off working as tractor operators, unloading and reloading hefty bales. Droneburg's office is continuing to solicit donations from as far away as Idaho.

"We are actively trying to get donors, making contact with farm communities everywhere in what is a real farmers-helping-farmers effort," Droneburg said.

Droneburg, who says his list of requests for donated hay is growing, called several farmers to the Army base yesterday.

James Roderuck's trailer can hold 220 square bales, but he gladly loaded 100 yesterday.

"If more is available, I will come get it again," he said.

He estimated the donation would save him about $400 on feed for the 90 dairy cows at his farm in Walkersville.

"This is the worst summer I have had, but everybody is in the same situation here," said Roderuck, 41. "I have corn that is only 3 feet tall with no ears. It should normally be 10 feet."

Tony Heims took nine large round bales -- about 1,000 pounds -- back to his Rocky Ridge farm. He planned to mix it with what little he has harvested from his fields, estimating that the supply would help feed his herd of 80 dairy cows for a few days, if his animals would eat it.

"The hay looks good, but it's up to the cattle to develop a taste for it," Heims said. "It is better than eating snowballs."

Cattle might not eat as much of the donated hay, which is probably not as flavorful as what the animals usually eat, Grumbine said.

"They would probably eat three times as much if this was better hay, but they will eat enough to keep from starving," Grumbine said. "They are like kids. If they don't have cake, they will eat bread."

Heims, who has been farming for most of his 38 years, acknowledges his is a hard life, "but I am not getting out, unless I am forced," he said.

He fears he may have to sell his herd at a time when beef prices have plunged to about 50 cents per pound. A few years ago, he could sell for twice that amount.

"Prices are low, and I don't see anything that will make them improve," said Kenny Smith of the Westminster Livestock Auction. "In fact, they will probably drop lower."

The drought was the last straw for Grumbine. He has already fed his cattle all the winter hay he could gather from parched fields and has spent another $1,000 on feed. The nine bales he collected yesterday might allow him to "get the cattle caught up and sell them even though the market is not good."

In a few weeks, Grumbine said he will haul his cattle to the stockyards and put the 130-acre farm his family has owned since 1842 on the market.

"I think it is better to raise houses on the land than crops," he said.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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