No easy ways to water crops

Irrigation impractical for grain farmers

June 13, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The modern farm has computers, satellites and biotechnology, none of which can produce the one thing it needs most: rain. And because farmers in central and western Maryland generally don't irrigate, this spring's drought has hit hard.

While they can't make it rain, government officials and farmers are working together to limit the drought's impact, said Cone Byler-Hsu, a program manager with the Maryland office of the Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.

There are some ways to deal with drought, extension agents say, such as planting short-season varieties of corn and soybeans, but it can be a gamble if the whole season is dry.

Those who plant corn and soybeans to feed their cattle have to consider options such as feeding more hay, but that has the drawback of reducing milk production, and therefore, income.

Maryland has not tracked drought-caused crop losses by dollar amount, but the state is beginning to gather data through several agencies, said Byler-Hsu.

She said the agencies are hoping to find ways to intervene or help farmers plan or make up for drought losses.

It couldn't come at a better time. The 1990s have brought more drought years than any other decade since he became an extension agent for the University of Maryland 27 years ago, said David L. Greene, director of the Mary- land Cooperative Extension in Carroll County.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, we'd have a normal year every now and then, but you can't hardly think of a normal year recently," said Greene.

Farmers in central and western Maryland are particularly vulnerable to drought conditions, because irrigation is an impractical option for all but high-value crops such as vegetables, fruit and tobacco.

For grain, a prime source of feed for the dairy and poultry industries, irrigation doesn't pay, say farmers. The profit margin is too small, and the topography and geology are not favorable.

"It'd take too much water, and we just don't have the water," said F. Willard "Bill" Buchman, a Carroll County farmer who raises some grain but whose main source of income is the 86 acres of vegetables and fruits he plants -- and irrigates.

Irrigating vegetables is more practical, because those plants bring a higher return and take up less space than grain, Buchman said.

In the early 1980s, he put in a new irrigation system, at a cost of around $40,000, he recalls. It seemed like a risk, but a necessary one because his old system wasn't working well, he said.

"It paid for itself the first year," Buchman said. "It was a drought year. Anyone who didn't have irrigation had absolutely nothing. We had just a tremendous crop. I got a terrific price."

His trickle irrigation system is made up of underground pipes that pump water from a stream-fed pond on his farm to beds of tomatoes, melons, peppers and other plants.

Along each row of plants is a plastic runner that covers the above-ground plastic tubing and keeps moisture in the soil around the plant. The plastic tubing can also send fertilizer and fungicide to the plants, Buchman said.

Buchman, 70, is going strong in the vegetable business, with clients who buy his produce wholesale and sell it at roadside stands.

"I provide them with produce seven days a week," he said. "They depend on me for it."

He loves his work so much he calls it a "vacation."

That isn't the kind of levity being heard from grain farms these days.

The spring drought, coming after a year of below-average rainfall that has left little moisture in the soil, is jeopardizing young corn plants in the critical stages of growth, and soybeans that were in danger of not germinating.

This year has all the signs of a rough one for farmers.

The National Weather Service predicts that even with normal rainfall for the rest of the summer, the evaporation rates will exceed that and prolong the drought conditions.

Grain farmers west of the Chesapeake Bay don't irrigate for a lot of reasons, said Greene.

"It's very costly," he said. "The profit margin is so slim [for grain] that even under ideal situations, they're not that great."

In the Midwest, and on Maryland's flat Eastern Shore, some farmers irrigate grain.

The soil, water tables and vast, flat fields make it more practical and necessary in those places, Greene said.

For Baltimore area farms, hilly fields rule out large overhead sprinklers that pivot around a central pipe.

A typical field in Carroll County is 7 or 8 acres, while a central pivot sprinkler needs at least 40 or 50 acres to accommodate its sweep.

In the Southwest, farmers grade fields with a slight slope downward from a water source, and dig trenches that allow water to flow down a field. That doesn't work here, either, he said.

Even if the land were flatter, farmers said, the water isn't here.

"In our area, the water's not available," said Ben Rock, a Taneytown grain farmer. "It's very expensive to drill wells, and the return isn't there."

For farmers in the limestone-based Wakefield Valley, pumping ground water could be dangerous because it could create sinkholes big enough to swallow a tractor and its driver, said Melvin Baile Jr., a grain farmer near New Windsor.

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