Drought-stricken Md. is declared federal disaster

Governor thankful, but he fears loans may be of little help

Long-term forecast grim

August 12, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration declared drought-stricken Maryland a federal agricultural disaster area yesterday, making all farmers and agriculture-dependent businesses in the state eligible for low-interest emergency loans and other relief.

It took a week for the U.S. Agriculture Department to respond to the disaster-relief request forwarded by Maryland's congressional delegation Aug. 4, and in subdued language, Gov. Parris N. Glendening thanked the White House.

But the governor warned that for farmers heavily in debt, low-interest loans might be of little help. What's needed, Glendening suggested, is not more loans but the kind of grants that were given to Midwestern farmers last year. Federal grant money, he said, might help persuade some beleaguered farmers not to sell out to developers.

"Because we have already had two dry seasons, farmers are already burdened with significant debt," Glendening said. "Losing crops this year is devastating. Losing farms to development would be a permanent tragedy."

The Senate has already passed a $7.4 billion farm-relief bill intended to help farmers hurt by low farm prices. President Clinton has called on Congress to increase the package with money designated specifically for drought relief.

Federal officials warned yesterday that the pressure on farmers is likely to intensify. John J. Kelly Jr., assistant administrator of the National Weather Service, said the service has forecast that the drought will persist through fall and into winter -- and possibly through the next two years.

Forecasters have called the drought in Maryland the state's worst in 70 years and say the past four months have been the driest since the government began tracking rainfall 105 years ago.

Rainfall in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states is 8 to 18 inches short of normal, and a couple of tropical storms would be needed to quickly make up the deficit.

"I wouldn't bet money on that happening," Kelly said. "The drought is going to stay."

That declaration was seized upon by Glendening aides as proof that the governor was right to order mandatory water-use restrictions last week for the first time in the state's history.

With a few exceptions, the restrictions, which took effect Aug. 4, bar residents from doing such things as watering lawns, topping or filling pools or washing cars at home. Businesses were also asked to cut their water consumption by about 10 percent. Agricultural irrigation is exempt from the restrictions.

"If we were planning for the best and it didn't happen, we'd be in trouble, but by being ready for the worst, we'll get through," said Mike Morrill, a Glendening spokesman. "If it continues through the winter, we will need to go to tighter restrictions, and those plans are in place."

Morrill said conservation efforts by the public were reducing statewide water consumption by more than the goal of 10 percent to 15 percent that Glendening set when he announced the mandatory restrictions.

But the drought has been so severe that conservation has done little to alleviate the region's agricultural woes. Maryland's farmers have faced losses ranging from 35 percent to 90 percent of their crops. And unlike most farm crises, the drought has been accompanied by extremely low prices for the crops that farmers have managed to produce. Usually, drought losses are somewhat offset by crop prices that rise as the supply of food products dwindles.

But this year, good weather and adequate rain in the nation's heartland have produced the fourth straight year of record crop production worldwide. The lingering economic crisis in Asia has depressed consumer demand, and farmers have had to sharply reduce the prices of their crops.

Economic disaster

For the 225,000 farmers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, the combination of the drought and low crop prices has meant economic disaster, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said yesterday. About 15 percent to 18 percent of the nation's farmers are in those regions. Yet many of these mostly small- and medium-sized producers may not be aware of their eligibility for traditional federal farm programs that are intended to support agriculture during lean times.

The economic crisis extends beyond Maryland's 12,300 farms. About 350,000 people in Maryland work in the agriculture industry, including livestock and seafood production, making it the largest commercial sector in the state.

Clinton administration officials said yesterday that they were fully aware of the problems and intend to help.

"At this point, we cannot promise rain, but we can promise action," said Commerce Secretary William M. Daley.

In addition to the emergency declaration, Glickman said, the administration will release nearly $5 million in matching grants that states can use to dig wells, install pipes and improve irrigation systems.

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