Heavy rains stymie Md. farmers Wet weather delays planting schedules, May hay harvests

May 12, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Maryland farmers, who begged for rain all last summer -- the driest in three decades -- now pray for it to end so they can plant corn, soybeans and other crops.

The steady rain in early May, usually an ideal time for sowing corn, has played havoc with planting schedules and prevented hay harvests across the state.

"Normally, we should be in full swing now," said Lawrence E. Meeks, who farms 3,100 acres in Silver Run, Carroll County. "We usually have 75 percent of our corn planted by now, but we have barely 20 percent in the ground. We have not planted a thing since May 2."

Drought losses statewide reached $70 million last year. A good crop could help erase much of that, but heavy rains are taking a toll. Every day planting is delayed means the loss of a bushel an acre.

In Carroll County, where corn production takes up about 50,000 acres, farmers are talking about losses. The average yield for corn should be about 120 bushels an acre, and the market usually pays about $3 a bushel.

"When you are getting 100 bushels instead of 120, you are talking thousands of dollars lost," said Kelly Hereth, executive director of the Carroll County Farm Service Agency. "Our farmers need to plant every acre they can."

The planting delays could also affect fruits, vegetables -- even flowers.

"Everything has come to a halt in the last 10 days," said Dave Martin, agricultural agent in Baltimore County. "This is the prime time for transplanting vegetables from the greenhouse to the field. It is not critical yet, but we are probably looking at market delays for fresh fruit and vegetables."

This month may be on its way to setting rainfall records. In the first 11 days, nearly 4 inches -- the normal rainfall for the entire month -- has fallen.

The rain has swamped Maryland, where agriculture is the top revenue-producing industry. On a trip to the Eastern Shore last week, David L. Greene, director of the Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service, noticed the same drenched fields.

"Everybody is in the same boat and baling water," he said. "Corn planted early does better and is not as affected by dry weather. Right now, farmers can't do anything."

In the nation, the Midwest and the South are also battling rainy springs. Consumers soon might notice higher prices, and Hereth would like to see local farmers get a jump on the competition and cash in on that boon.

"You can't drag your machinery through the mud," she said. "The window of planting opportunity is tight and getting tighter. For farmers to get the optimum yield, they have to finish planting corn by the end of May."

Ironically, Meeks had crews working on a faulty well pump yesterday. He had no water for his barn or outside spigots, but several of his fields were so soggy that the hay crop was probably in trouble. It will take more time to harvest, and Meeks might have to decide whether to cut hay or finish planting corn.

A good harvest could be the turning point for farmers struggling with credit problems stemming from the drought, which led to a $10 million loss in the local corn crop, Hereth said.

"We are carrying debt we couldn't pay last year," Meeks said. "With a good year, we would have a chance to pay some back, but now we can't work."

The National Weather Service is predicting a break in the weather tomorrow, but planting probably will not resume until the weekend at the earliest because farmers need three straight days of sun and dry air.

"We are falling behind our work schedule and sure don't need to lose a whole week, but it looks like we will," said Meeks. "Showers and clouds are no good."

With fair weather and good equipment, a farmer can plant 3 acres an hour. But with much to plant and time running out, Greene said many cannot afford to wait for optimum conditions. They might risk planting in soil that is wetter than it should be.

"The seed does not get as good a contact with the soil and may not germinate," said Greene.

Glenn Eaves, who plants 2,000 acres of corn on his Woodsboro farm in Frederick County, is willing to wait, but knows he faces long hours of labor. "It is going to take some hurrying up to get caught up," Eaves said.

Eaves can see hay growing in his fields, a crop that could alleviate hefty feed bills he has incurred all winter for 4,800 animals.

"I had to buy hay all winter," he said. "I would like to get these crops off and start feeding the animals again myself."

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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