As crops wither, so do hopes

Drought: Maryland farmers fear the economic effects of extreme heat and a prolonged dry spell.

July 21, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The signs of drought are everywhere across Maryland.

Pastures are brown. Wells have run dry. Reservoirs are growing grass. Boat launches sit in seas of weeds. Insects are multiplying. And growing numbers of farmers are near despair.

"My squash looks terrible, my cucumbers look terrible. ... I should have corn this week, but there's nothing there," said Linda Brown, who farms 86 acres in western Howard County. "I'm going to get almost nothing off ... acres of sweet corn."

Corn and soybeans make up the bulk of Maryland's crop production, about 43 percent worth, and both have been deeply distressed by the weather.

"We're seeing [projections] in excess of 50 percent of the corn being unrecoverable or severely affected in the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland," said Donald H. Vandrey, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It's closer to 40 percent in the central counties."

Significant rain within the next seven to 10 days could do a lot to turn that around, but Vandrey says farmers are nearing the end of the window in which those crops could be saved.

"We're in a period right now where the corn is in tassel, where it starts to pollinate," said Steve Connelly, director of the state's Farm Service Agency office. "When you have excessive heat, you have poor pollination."

Caragh Fitzgerald, an educator with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, says heat can make flowers and fruit fall off plants, making pollination impossible.

Brown, who depends on the Triadelphia reservoir, which is 14 feet below normal, saw that with her squash.

"We had that extreme heat a few weeks ago, and the next week, the blooms didn't set," she said. "We'll see that throughout the season."

Brown, who grows vegetables "from asparagus to zucchini," has had success with plants she has been able to irrigate, but hers is a small operation, and her water is limited. She cannot afford to irrigate her Christmas-tree fields or her pumpkin patches; they are just too big. For those, she is praying for rain.

Among the success stories are her tomatoes, which she said look great and have survived a big threat: bugs.

The heat increases insect metabolism, so they multiply faster and eat more, taking moisture from plants by feeding on their juices, Fitzgerald said. Rain can usually curtail that, by washing some of the bugs off crops and drowning others.

This year's lack of rain has helped bugs flourish.

Of particular concern is the tiny green or brown thrip, which feeds on tomatoes and can carry the spotted wilt virus, which can wipe out a tomato crop. Fitzgerald says she has not heard of any virus cases in Maryland, but she is keeping a close eye out for them.

Brown had thrips in her tomatoes, but said she took care of them through pest control.

In Carroll County, Mary Ellen Bay has gotten off lucky. Her corn and soybeans came in early, and she was able to salvage most of her crop. Her concern is the shortage of ground water, which Connelly said will take a couple of very wet winters to correct.

"I have a 3/4 -acre pond which is spring-fed," Bay said. "There's no water running into it; it's down about 3 feet."

Bay said she and her husband paid a contractor to redevelop the spring, but have gotten little return.

She fears newer and bigger operations are hogging the depleted water supply, which has cattle farmers worried as well.

Jason Parker in West Friendship in Howard County has had to move his black Angus cattle up near his barn and away from the stream bed they're used to drinking from because it's dry. Feeding them has been difficult, too.

Parker got only 60 percent of his hay crop this year, which he gives the cows in the winter, and he has had to dip into that stock because there is little for the cattle to graze on in his parched fields.

He probably will have to buy hay to replace what he is using.

The drought is most severe in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, according to Vandrey. He also says the drought is hurting all parts of the state except the western counties.

In the central counties - which include Howard, Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and the upper half of Anne Arundel - all four wells used to measure water status were at record low levels at the end of last month, and rain deficits for the last year range from a low of 9 inches short in Anne Arundel to a high of 17.8 inches short in Baltimore City.

Overall, 36 percent of the contiguous United States is under severe to extreme drought conditions.

"This is really a continuum. We've been in a rain deficit for several years, dating back to 1999, which was the last severe drought," Vandrey said. "The conditions we're seeing now are equal to, and perhaps becoming worse than, what we saw in 1999."

That's the worst kind of news for farmers, who must deal with developers and a population that largely does not understand them. But the drought is not a surprise. They see the evidence of it in their fields every day.

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