Disaster relief sought for drought-hit farms

Glendening appeals for federal aid for 17 counties

August 03, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Standing in a scraggly soybean field near here, Gov. Parris N. Glendening asked the U.S. agriculture secretary yesterday to declare farmers in 17 Maryland counties eligible for disaster relief from the extreme drought that has stunted their crops and threatened their livelihood.

Glendening, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes inspected Vaughn Harshman's rain-starved fields southwest of Frederick and heard the 41-year-old farmer describe how the harsh weather and a slumping farm economy are pushing him to consider quitting.

"When fall harvest is over, I have to evaluate what I'm going to do," Harshman said, crouching amid ankle-high, yellowed soybean plants and vast patches of bare, parched earth. Normally, he said, the plants would be 3 feet high, lush green and totally covering the ground. "It looks bleak at best right now."

The governor presented Glickman with a letter formally requesting federal disaster assistance for farmers in all but six of Maryland's 23 counties.

The request came a day before a federal advisory board was to review drought-related crop damage in each county, but estimates prepared for that meeting range from 35 percent to 75 percent across the state, according to one agriculture official.

"This could be a long-term disaster, both for these farmers [and] also for their way of life in Maryland," Glendening told Glickman. "We've got a crisis here."

The governor said the drought gripping the mid-Atlantic region is the worst in 70 years and reiterated his vow to impose statewide water-use restrictions by week's end to conserve shrinking drinking-water reservoirs.

"This is not just a localized farmers' problem," Glendening said. "This is a problem for each and every Marylander. We've got to work together to provide some relief."

A task force appointed by Glendening was to present the governor today with a list of recommended water-use restrictions, such as limits on watering lawns and washing cars. Curbs almost certainly will be in place by the weekend, possibly sooner, predicted Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida, the task force chairwoman.

"Farmers face a double crisis," said Sarbanes. "Commodity prices are at all-time lows, and then they get this kind of weather. It's a double whammy."

Swift action promised

Glickman promised swift action on the governor's request and predicted that Maryland farmers would be able to apply for low-interest federal disaster loans within days.

Earlier in the day, he had toured similarly devastated croplands in West Virginia and declared the state a drought disaster area, along with contiguous counties in Maryland and four other neighboring states.

Farmers in or adjacent to designated counties could borrow up to $500,000 at 3.75 percent interest, provided they have been denied commercial loans first.

But officials acknowledged the loans would be of limited help to farmers, who may be reluctant to go deeper in debt when they are suffering the lowest crop prices in more than 20 years.

"We need something more than just low-interest loans," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican representing Western Maryland and a farmer himself. "That's not going to do it. Many farmers have already borrowed more than they should."

Bartlett joined Glickman and other officials at a nearby farmhouse, where they met with about 75 farmers from Frederick and neighboring counties. Glickman said his agency would try to supplement the loans by offering help through other existing agriculture programs. But he said Congress would have to provide significant aid for economically battered farmers.

Congress approved $5.9 billion last year to help farmers in the Southeast and Midwest who were hard-hit by drought, the agriculture secretary noted. He said the Clinton administration would seek a similarly large relief bill this year for mid-Atlantic farmers.

Farmers in double bind

The drought could not have come at a worse time, Glickman said, because farmers nationwide have been hurt by record-low crop prices not seen since the 1970s. Booming harvests worldwide and economic woes in other countries have created a glut in the commodity markets.

Harshman, a note of anger in his voice, said most people "would be appalled if they would be expected to get paid and live at what they got 25 years ago, but that's what we're being expected to do."

Glickman said Congress needs to retool the federal farm law to cushion farmers from the vagaries of global markets and weather-related disasters.

Glendening said he is worried that if farmers do not get help with the drought and prices, more of them will sell out to developers, undermining the state's efforts to preserve open space and curb suburban sprawl.

The offers of assistance were welcome news to strapped farmers such as Leon Enfield, a dairy farmer from Knoxville. He said he has spent more than $5,000 on hay for his 175 cows, because the pastures they normally graze have withered.

Doubts about aid

He expressed doubt, though, about the benefits of $3 million in state aid Glendening promised for farmers to plant "cover crops" of small grains this fall.

"Unless we get some rain and early growth," he said, "it's not too likely" those crops will grow.

Richard Pry, 65, of Burkittsville said the drought has devastated the corn, hay and alfalfa crops he normally counts on to sustain his 230 beef cattle. With only a few days' supply of feed left, he has begun to sell his herd.

"We're getting 1950 prices," he said of the value of his cattle. "But unfortunately, anything we buy we get at 1999 prices."

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 8/03/99

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