Recent rainfall extinguishes farmers' immediate concerns

But agricultural experts warn that critical period for crops is just beginning

June 22, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The gentle rainfall that sprinkled about an inch onto Maryland fields over the past few days was just the right kind -- slow and steady enough to sink down to the thirsty roots of young corn plants and newly planted soybeans.

It may have saved some crops from total loss, but without more of it throughout the summer, farmers will be hurting.

"Everything looks good right now," said Robert Bounds, a past chairman of the Maryland Soybean Board and a Uniontown farmer. "But let that sun come out for four or five days of 90-degree weather, and then you'll see the lawns will start drying up and turning brown again."

The critical period is just beginning -- the late June through August rainfall is what makes or breaks a crop, Bounds said.

Because last winter and fall were drier than normal, the soil has less moisture to start with, Bounds said.

So when May and June came in short on precipitation and somewhat windy, it put farmers all over the state -- especially in Calvert and St. Mary's counties -- in dire straits.

"Things look a little better than they did," said Herb Reed, an extension agent in those counties and in Charles County. "It certainly hasn't caught us up, but it will help out for the short term. It may have saved some fields."

In Carroll and central Maryland, farmers have been more fortunate, Bounds said.

"We've gotten an inch-plus in the last week or so, which was needed to pull us out of the fire for the time being. But our subsoil moisture is so low that we're going to need continual rain in order to keep this crop going," he said.

Ideal conditions would be an inch of rain a week. But even half an inch a week would be good. Four inches a month would be considered normal, Bounds said, but the area received about a quarter the normal rainfall this spring.

"This time of year, any time you can get a prolonged rain, it's important," said David L. Greene, director of the Maryland Cooperative Extension office in Carroll County. "It's really been a lifesaver -- I should say crop saver."

Greene said young corn plants, which this time of year should be of even height in a field, are growing unevenly because of the lack of moisture.

Soybeans are more drought-resistant, but the newly planted seeds need moisture to germinate.

Once they grow tall and wide enough to "shade the row" -- shade the soil beneath them -- they help reduce evaporation, Greene said.

Pastures also need rain for grazing cattle.

Farmers ordinarily only buy or stock enough hay to feed through the winter. If the pastures dry up, they'll have to start using their stores now, leading to a possible shortage in the winter.

Farmers who grow wheat would just as soon get a respite from rain for the rest of this week, Reed said. It's time to harvest, and the crop has to be dry for that to occur.

Most will harvest the wheat and then immediately plant soybeans in the same field -- another activity that can't be done well in the rain.

After that, Reed said, let it rain.

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