Maryland preparing to seek drought-disaster assistance

Farmers' fields parched at time of low grain prices

Those who irrigate hurting, too

July 20, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The hot and dry weather of the past two weeks has taken a major toll on farm crops, and state officials are gathering information to apply to have much of Maryland declared a drought disaster area.

The dismal outlook for corn, soybeans and melons in some parts of the state comes three weeks after agriculture officials were happily reporting that, thanks to timely rains, nearly 70 percent of the corn and soybeans were in good or excellent condition.

"It just goes to show how rapidly things can deteriorate when you start the season with low subsoil water levels," said Ray Garibay, state statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's crop reporting service.

Damage varies greatly from one region of the state to another. Corn and soybeans, major crops used for feed by the state's big poultry industry, are suffering greatly on Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland farms.

While these field crops are faring better in northern counties along the Pennsylvania border, wells have gone dry on hundreds of Carroll, Frederick and Washington County farms.

At the Hutchison Brothers Farm near Cordova in Talbot County, the soil is dry and dusty. "Since June 6, we've gotten 1.6 inches of rain," said Robert Hutchison who farms about 4,000 acres with his brothers Richard and David.

That has not been nearly enough to sustain the farm's 1,600 acres of corn. Stalks that should be lush green and 8 feet tall are a yellowish green and only waist high. The top leaves are spiked like pineapple plants, and lower leaves have dried up and turned brown.

"We have already lost half of our corn crop," Hutchison said at mid-week, "and each day it doesn't rain we are losing another 2 to 5 percent.

"It doesn't matter if we get good rain from here on out to the end of the season, there is no way this corn is going to recover."

Hutchison said soybeans on another 1,600 acres "are hurting, but there is still time for them to bounce back. August is the critical month for beans, that's when they set blossom and pod."

Tony Evans, the state Department of Agriculture's emergency service agent, said three Eastern Shore counties - Talbot, Caroline and Wicomico - have filed reports showing that up to 45 percent of the corn crop has succumbed to the dry, hot weather.

He said 30 percent of the soybeans in Caroline and Talbot are destroyed, along with 25 percent to 35 percent of the soybeans in Wicomico.

The drought could also make watermelons more scarce at roadside stands, according to Evans. Wicomico County reports that 15 percent of its watermelon and cantaloupe harvest has been lost this year.

Evans said much of Maryland has been suffering from below-normal rainfall since the fall of 1998.

He blamed the long-term water shortage for wells going dry in Carroll, Washington and Frederick counties.

Bradley H. Powers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said there are regions of the state where the corn crop is a complete loss. "Farmers have chopped up the stalks and used them for silage to feed livestock."

"We are still gathering information," Powers said, "but we are probably days, weeks at the most, from seeking a disaster designation."

The normal procedure is for the state Farm Service Agency to collect the information needed to support a disaster designation. The governor would then use the data in a letter to federal Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman requesting disaster relief, which could make low-interest loans available to farmers.

Powers said farmers who have saved their crops through irrigation are still going to feel the financial pinch of the drought. "Irrigation is expensive," he said. "It costs farmers hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars a day to pump water."

He said farmers are being hit with a double whammy this year.

The drought is occurring when grain prices are near 20-year lows.

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