21 Md. counties are ruled farm disaster areas

Only Allegany, Garrett got enough rain, U.S. says

Drought aid available

Senate OK'd funds bill, but House adjourned

October 19, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 21 of Maryland's 23 counties agriculture disaster areas yesterday because of one of the worst droughts in more than a century.

The designation opens the door to several government emergency relief programs designed to help farmers cope with financial losses that range from 50 percent to 75 percent of their annual incomes.

The government programs include low-interest loans to farmers who have been turned down by conventional lenders and a program that helps farmers pay for feed for animals.

Steve Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Service Agency office in Columbia, which administers USDA policy in the state, said the disaster designation also puts farmers in line for any drought-related financial-aid package Congress passes.

Against the wishes of President Bush, the Senate has passed a bill to provide nearly $6 billion in aid to farmers and ranchers who have been staggered by the drought, which has ravaged crops in many parts of the country and forced ranchers to reduce their herds.

The House adjourned this week without voting on financial assistance for farmers. David Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union, criticized the House's lack of action, saying it left farm families across the country "disappointed, disheartened and discouraged."

Despite the wrangling in Washington, Donnie Tennyson welcomed yesterday's move by the USDA. Tennyson, who operates a 700-acre farm near Scotland, at the extreme southern end of St. Mary's County, said the loan program would not be a big help to him but any congressional aid plan, if one is approved, would benefit his farm.

Tennyson said the loan program is set up to be the lender of last resort, helping farmers who are desperate and on the verge of losing their farms.

"If you are turned down by two banks, you are in bad shape," he said. "You don't need money; you need to be in another line of work, something other than farming."

He said the drought destroyed about 60 percent of his corn crop and 70 percent to 75 percent of his soybeans.

Connelly said that only the state's two westernmost counties - Allegany and Garrett - had adequate rain for normal crop growth.

"Southern Maryland and the lower Eastern Shore were the hardest hit," he said, "but statewide the losses were in excess of 45 percent for both corn and soybeans." He said the damage ranged from 30 percent in some counties to 80 percent in others.

According to the Farm Service Agency, Charles County suffered the greatest crop damage in the state. Farmers there lost 80 percent of their corn, half of their soybeans, 60 percent of their hay and 70 percent of their fruit and vegetables.

Connelly said farmers in Allegany and Garrett counties qualify for the federal loan program because the two counties border states that have been designated disaster areas.

They don't qualify for the livestock feed, and Connelly said it has not been determined whether they would be eligible for any congressional aid package.

The livestock program applies to owners of dairy and beef cows, sheep and goats. As an example of how the program works, Connelly said the government will make a one-time payment of $31.50 for each adult dairy cow in a farmer's herd.

"In times of stress, like these, that can be a big help," he said.

Bruce Leaverton, who farms nearly 2,300 acres near Centreville in Queen Anne's County, said the rains of the past two weeks came too late to benefit his grain crops.

He said the 1 1/2 inches of rain this week, on top of slightly more than 3 inches last week, "was more rain than we got all summer." He welcomed the rain, saying it will help improve subsoil moisture that could benefit next year's crops.

Connelly said rainfall in much of the state is still 10 to 12 inches below average.

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