Carroll farmers weigh pros, cons of state, federal aid

Drought has produced fourth bad year in area

August 16, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Tough and relentlessly optimistic, Taneytown farmer Mehrl Adkins ignored the pain that four bad years have brought and managed a smile.

"We don't need a lot of rain, but it's hard to grow grain with dew," Adkins said.

He went to the Carroll office of the Farm Service Agency in Westminster, a local arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to inquire about state and federal aid programs during the state's worst drought in 70 years.

Because Maryland has been declared a federal disaster area, farmers are eligible for low-interest loans. Once partisan battles are played out in Congress, other programs could be approved in the coming weeks and months.

Farmers should be able to get help to purchase and transport water and feed for livestock; receive some direct payments for losses; and participate in cover-crop programs, said Kelly Hereth, executive director of the Farm Service Agency office.

Farmers such as Adkins and Jeff Hevner, a Keysville livestock farmer, were beginning to trickle in Thursday to seek assistance. Hevner wanted to apply for a grant to help with the cost of hauling water from Pennsylvania and storing it in a tank on his 200-acre farm for his cattle, sheep and hogs. His pond has dried up.

Hevner said he didn't plan to apply for loans.

"We try to keep our debt load low," he said.

Adkins and others are hoping that after four bad years in a row, they have exhausted their run of bad luck.

Normally, Adkins would grow enough feed for his 55 milk cows, plus extra grain to sell. But since 1996, he has had to spend $2,000 a month to buy grain for his cattle.

"It'll be better next year," Adkins said. "They can't keep beating on us."

"They" are the forces of nature and a market that seem to be squeezing farmers from all sides. This year would be bad enough based on the lack of rain. But the previous three years had set back farmers without giving them a chance to recover between blows.

In 1996, too much spring rain hurt many newly planted grain crops. Then 1997 brought drought. Rain was just right for the growing season of 1998, but the price farmers got for corn and soybeans hit a 30-year low. A dry fall and winter last year left the soil unusually dry going into a year with rainfall more than 20 inches below average.

Pastures have dried out. Soybeans got a late start and are subject to spider mites that come with drought. Corn will produce low yields and net losses of about $100 an acre for some farmers.

"I've never seen it beat you this many years in a row," said Adkins, a fifth-generation farmer. He motioned to his stomach. "You get that pain in there."

The USDA will offer loans with an interest rate of 3.75 percent, Hereth said. Farmers have to meet certain criteria to qualify, such as being denied a commercial loan and showing the ability to have enough cash flow to pay the loan back.

"The last thing farmers need is another loan," said Lawrence Meeks, who raises 2,000 acres of grains and green beans.

But for some, it will be better than nothing and increase the options, he said.

"If the loan is less than the market rate, that's an option for you to reduce your operating expenses," Meeks said. "As a business person, I would love to have cheap money, but I don't have enough information to decide yet."

For most grain farmers, he said, it will be November, after the harvest of corn and soybeans, before they can measure their losses. Meeks is sure he'll have losses.

It cost him about $275 an acre to plant corn, he said. In a good year, a $50 net profit an acre would be manageable. But last year was a break-even one -- good crop and yield, but low prices. The year before that was a loss to drought. This year, Meeks said, he'll be relieved if his loss is $100 an acre.

As he looked across his worst cornfield, he snapped off an ear and pulled back the husk to show rows of kernels that never formed. Dry, hot weather interferes with pollination, which has to happen before kernels can form.

The ear looked like a cob that had been eaten -- with only a few kernels formed. Meeks expects no more than 15 percent or 20 percent of the normal yield from this field, although his other fields are faring better.

"This is the worst I got that I know of," he said.

Pub Date: 8/16/99

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