Luck showers farmers unevenly

Md.'s variable rainfall has served some farmers, failed others

August 22, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

CHANEYVILLE -- At High Hopes Farm, hope is almost as scarce as rainwater and lucky breaks.

Time after time this spring and summer, the sky over this Southern Maryland town has darkened with the teasing promise of a thundershower. Time and again, members of the Brady family have watched in disgust as the clouds rolled over them to dump "their" rain on a neighbor's farm a few miles away.

"This kind of year makes you want to just sit there and cry," says Mandi Brady, the 24-year-old wife of third-generation farmer S. L. Brady.

The results are visible in the family's fields: brown and blotchy tobacco leaves, stunted cornstalks and ankle-high bean plants that should have come up to S. L.'s mid-thigh by now.

This is Maryland's drought within a drought, found in pockets around the state that have remained dry even as summer storms have brought modest relief to farmers in surrounding areas. Precipitation deficits vary widely from county to county, from 4.9 inches in Caroline to 18.7 inches in Howard.

St. Mary's, Frederick and Washington counties are among the areas where farmers have been hit especially hard by the state's worst drought in more than half a century.

Even within counties, there are significant variations. In Howard, the rural west has been especially dry. The Davidsonville area has been drier than other areas of Anne Arundel County, and crops in the stretch from Whiteford to Darlington are browner than crops in other parts of Harford County.

"It's very, very spotty," said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts.

Chaneyville lies in the heart of one of the most arid regions, northern Calvert County. It has been this way for three years, local farmers say. With few soaking rains, and with ponds running dry, farmers depend on thunderstorms to bring them water at crucial times, and thunder and lightning are fickle friends.

Lynne Hoote, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, said the storm fronts that have rolled through recently have behaved fairly typically. "Sometimes it's five miles wide and sometimes it's a mile wide," she said.

Some are shortchanged

Even when storms deliver rain, they seem to shortchange some, such as the Bradys and their neighbors.

When the skies opened up last weekend, an inch fell on Chaneyville, the first appreciable rainfall in the area in three months. A few miles south in Huntingtown, 1 1/2 to 2 inches were measured. Ten miles north in Lothian, in Anne Arundel County, Jeff Griffith's farm received 2 1/2 inches.

The contrast between the Brady and Griffith farms is stark. Last week, Griffith pointed to healthy green tobacco plants with only normal, healthy browning at the base. The extended Brady family was harvesting plants with many sunburned, crumbling leaves marked with splotches of yellow and brown.

S. L. Brady, who farms with his father and uncles, stripped one of the few cobs from a withered, chest-high cornstalk. He peeled away the dry husk to reveal a mottled pattern of deep golden, hard dry kernels, typical of a year in which he expects to lose as much as 75 percent of his usual yield.

"We'll harvest it, but the grain that comes off it will be of poor quality," said Brady, at 26 one of a vanishing breed of young full-time farmers in Southern Maryland.

By contrast, Griffith's corn stands 10 feet high and appears green and healthy. He cracked open an ear to display creamy, light yellow kernels, moist and juicy on the inside.

"I've got some just about as good as I've ever raised," Griffith said. He thinks he could harvest as much as 90 to 100 bushels an acre. Brady figures he'll be lucky if he brings in 50.

Griffith credits the 4 1/2 inches of rain he received over a four-day period a month ago with saving his summer. During that period, the Bradys measured a trace.

"I've never seen it this dry in my time," said 81-year-old Wilford H. Jones, a local farm worker. He was helping the Bradys harvest their tobacco crop and hang it in their drying barn as they prepared their No. 1 cash crop for a market that might not be there.

S. L. Brady worries about the judgment of the buyers. "They're probably going to consider it a poor-quality crop," he said.

Some want federal aid

The Bradys are scornful of low-interest loans being promised by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whom they regard as the enemy of tobacco farmers. What farmers need, they say, is direct federal aid.

"The last thing we need is to go further into debt," Mandi Brady said. The family will sign up for a program that will pay them to plant cover crops this fall and winter to prevent soil runoff from barren fields.

For now, there is little hope of relief. J. L. Hearn, director of the state's Water Management Administration, said long-term forecasts call for "more of the same."

Mandi Brady said that if she had enough money, she would go back to school to finish her nursing degree. She quit the program because of her preference for farming.

Standing by a rented field of withered corn, S. L. Brady said he figures the family will hang on despite the third year of drought.

"It's not in your blood to quit, but it makes you think about it," he said.

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