Trying to squeeze a crop from parched earth

Maryland's farmers watch their profits shrivel along with corn and beans

August 24, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

STREET - As one of the most severe droughts in more than a century scorches Maryland, farmers are struggling to save crops, harvest what they can and keep water flowing to animals.

"I've been farming all my life," said Joe Mullhausen, a 72-year-old Harford County farmer. "There are good years and bad years. ... You have to grin and bear it. That's the penalty we pay for being in agriculture."

Farmers across the state are being forced to bear a lot this year. The droughts will cost farmers "million and millions of dollars in lost crops this year," said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Hagner R. Mister.

"The situation gets worse every day," he said. "Seventy percent of the corn has already been destroyed. Soybeans aren't doing much better." Mullhausen is not bothered nearly so much by the short crop as he is by the lack of water on his farm. "My springs have dried up," he said. "That's never happened before. I've been told that the stagecoach drivers used to water their horses at those springs."

As a result, he is being forced to tap into a well that supplies water to the house to quench the thirst of 140 beef cows.

"That well is only 60 feet deep," he said. "It could go dry any day. That's the reason I'm having somebody come in next week to drill a new well."

His 100 acres of corn stands taller and looks much greener than corn on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland. But Mullhausen estimates that the hot, dry summer will cost him 35 percent of his corn harvest.

"Sure, its stressful but you have got to keep it in here," he said. "I don't want to get into worrying. It doesn't do any good. You have to keep telling yourself that next year is going to be better."

Mullhausen might be more worried if he hadn't taken steps to shore up his financial position.

This month Millhausen sold five of his farm's 11 building rights to a local vegetable packing house for about $200,000 - "enough," he said, "for me to clean up my debt, and that makes it a lot easier to cope with a year like this year."

Farmers aren't just sitting back and watching their corn dry up.

"I'm as busy as ever," said Ed Fry, who has about 600 acres of corn at a farm near Kennedyville in Kent County. "The drought has accelerated the harvest season. We would normally start harvesting at this time, but because of the drought, this year we started on Aug. 3."

"We're working from sun up to sun down everyday harvesting corn for silage," he said of a process where the entire plant is ground up and used for animal feed.

Fry estimates that his corn harvest will be about 40 percent of a normal crop.

"It gets to be very frustrating," he said. "It really does. And the degree of frustration has a direct relationship to farmers' ability to pay their bills. If they are highly leveraged, they are under an enormous amount of stress. If they're not, it's a lot better."

These are times, he said, when farmers need to hunker down and become more conservative in their spending.

"You put off buying a new pickup. You fix a piece of equipment rather than replace it," he said.

"The good farmers know how to survive in times like these," Fry continued. "Poor farmers end up exiting the business."

Fry is expecting his gross sales to be off about 40 percent this year and his net income to be zero.

"This is why we have to be close friends with our bankers," Fry said.

In flush years, Fry said, he uses the proceeds to pre-pay his bank loan, making it easier to borrow again when the next bad year pops up.

"It takes a good relationship with your bank," he said. "That's the way you survive and retain your sanity."

Even the banks serving the farm community have changed the way they do business to help farmers through rough times.

Burned by the adverse publicity of foreclosure auctions during the big farm shakeout in the mid-1970s, banks began basing their loans on a farmer's ability to repay rather than the value of the farm.

J. Robert Frazee, president of Westminster-based MidAtlantic Farm Credit, the state's largest agriculture lender with more than $1 billion in loans outstanding, said the bank now factors in the possibility of drought years or other natural disasters when it approves a loan.

"We look two or three years ahead, at what are some of the things that could happen down the road," he said.

Bradley H. Powers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said a strong spiritual belief helps farmers through years like this one."It sounds hokey," he said, "but they are the most religious people on Earth. They know there is a Maker up there looking out for them and the hard times will get better."

He said the farming community "is close-knit, and they close ranks to protect each other when times are bad."

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