Maryland farmers, who suffered through a devastating drought last year, enter the new one with a number of dark clouds on the horizon.
"Farmers face a great deal of uncertainty in 1998," said Henry A. Virts, who took over as state Agriculture Secretary on Jan. 1.
Dairy farmers will continue their struggle to survive. Grain prices are expected to decline. Southern Maryland tobacco growers will remain under attack by anti-smoking forces. And farm equipment sales are expected to be flat this year.
In addition, Eastern Shore poultry producers and grain farmers will have to sweat out legislation dealing with last summer's Pfiesteria outbreak, which has been blamed for fish kills in two rivers and one creek, causing human illness and rendering a staggering economic blow to Maryland's giant recreational fishing and seafood industries.
And there is always the uncertainty of what Mother Nature will bring.
"There's no doubt about it: 1998 will be a challenging year for agriculture," said Virts, a veterinarian and farmer from St. Mary's County who had served as deputy secretary since 1991. "Farming is a tough business. A farmer has to work hard, be a good businessman, be a good accountant and -- most of all -- be lucky to make a profit."
The year just ended is proof of that.
In what started out as a promising harvest ended in disaster for central Maryland grain farmers in mid-summer, when the region was hit by a drought, causing corn and soybean plants to dry up in the fields.
Grain farmers in Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Kent, Queen Anne's and Washington counties lost 70 to 80 percent -- in some cases, more -- of their harvests.
Much of the state was declared a disaster area and the loss in net farm income fell by about 40 percent, or about $147 million.
"It was the worst drought I've seen in 30 years," said Paul Raech, a grain farmer from the Earleville section of Cecil County. "My corn was completely shot."
But there are bright spots in the coming year. Agriculture exports in Maryland, for instance, are expected to grow faster than for the nation as whole.
"We see exports rising 25 percent in 1998," said Errol Small, head of the state Agricultural Department's international marketing efforts. This compares with an anticipated 15 percent jump in U.S. farm exports.
Small credits the anticipated growth to increased awareness on the part of state agribusinesses of the importance of international markets.
Organic farming is another segment of agriculture that is expected to have a good year. The production of fruits and vegetables with no traces of herbicides or pesticides has been growing at a 20 percent annual pace since 1992, and this trend is expected to continue this year, according to Robert Pooler, coordinator of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's organic certification program.
"It is probably the fastest growing segment of agriculture, and we see the 20 percent annual growth rate lasting another five, or maybe 10 years," Pooler said.
Early Monroe, an organic farmer in Frederick County, said that some dairy farmers who have been unable to earn a profit milking cows are considering moving into organic farming.
In October, Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed Monroe to the 22-member Agriculture Commission, which advises the state agriculture secretary on industry trends and policy. The appointment marked the first time the organic segment of agriculture was represented on the commission.
Dairymen need to be considering a back-up plan to maintain the viability of their farms. "The outlook for the dairy industry in this state is very bleak," said Norman E. Astle, a spokesman for the Maryland Farm Bureau, the state largest farm organization with 14,800 members.
Low prices are just one of the perils facing dairy farmers.
C. William Knill, president of the Farm Bureau, said a federal court decision late last year ordering the Department of Agriculture to discontinue its system for pricing milk will drive what is left of the dairy industry in Maryland out of business.
The price that Maryland farmers are paid for their milk is based on production costs in Wisconsin, plus a transportation differential that would equal the cost of shipping the milk from Wisconsin to Maryland. The court decision will eliminate the transportation differential.
Knill warned that state dairymen will lose as much as $1.30 per hundredweight for their milk, which will send the industry into a tailspin.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has appealed the ruling of a U.S. District Court in Minnesota, and the industry is awaiting the outcome.
Virts noted that Maryland has lost 40 percent of its dairy farms over the past 10 years. The failure rate has quickened in recent months. "Thirty-five farms have gone out of business in the last six months," he said.
Poultry producers and Eastern Shore grain farmers will turn their attention to the General Assembly to get a reading on how they might fare economically.