Killing drought leaves farm economy drained

Hurting: The economic hardship of drought-stricken farmers extends into the small towns where they do business.

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

CENTREVILLE - The rains of the past two weeks came too late to rescue Maryland's grain crop. This year's drought, one of the worst in more than a century, will cost many farmers up to 75 percent of their income and put an economic pinch on rural businesses throughout the state.

"We've had more rain in the past two weeks than we had all summer," said Bruce Leaverton as he pointed toward a muddy, 400-acre field of soybeans. "But it was no help."

Leaverton farms nearly 2,300 acres just south of this Delmarva town. Bean plants that should be waist-high and fuller than a bushel basket this time of the year barely reach above the 4-inch stubble of winter wheat harvested before the soybeans were planted.

Instead of harvesting 30 bushels of beans from each acre planted, Leaverton will be lucky to get 10 bushels an acre. "Ten is being optimistic," he said. "In some fields it won't pay to harvest the beans."

Doing some quick calculations in his head, he estimates that instead of banking $30 to $50 from each acre of beans planted, he will lose about $80 per acre this year.

Multiply that loss by 400 acres and it means a loss of $32,000. It also provides a glimpse into the financial plight of farmers across the state.

The economic hardship that growers are feeling this year doesn't stop at the end of their farm lanes. It trickles into the small towns where farmers buy their groceries, farm equipment and furniture, get their hair cut and go out to dinner.

It's being felt in Pocomoke City, where Ken Wilmer, owner of the Upper Deck Restaurant, reports that business is off 10 percent this year.

And in Snow Hill, where Central Implement Co., a farm equipment store that has served the area since 1948, is set to close at year's end and lay off its 14 employees.

"The drought and poor commodity prices - which were at a 20-year low in recent years - were too much for us," said Jeff Chapman, president of Central Implement. "Farmers quit buying big tractors. They didn't have the money. It was a hard decision, but we have to pull the plug."

Sales slowed

At Queen Anne's Tractor Co., in the town of the same name, salesman Tom Eason said business slowed considerably when the rains stopped in June.

"It was like somebody turned the faucet off," he said.

Farmers quit buying $200,000 combines, and homeowners put off their purchases of $2,000 riding mowers.

A short distance away, Gene Boyle, vice president of Boyle Brothers Inc., which processes seeds for planting, said, "We will be lucky if we do 20 percent of our normal business this year."

"That's not enough to make payment on our bills or to make payroll," he said. The company has 14 workers.

"The drought has been much worse than I thought it would be," he said. "Two years like this will put us out of business."

Blair Carmean, manager of Carmean Grain Co., in Ridgely, said sales are off 50 percent. The company buys grain from farmers and sells it to Delmarva poultry companies.

Carmean said business isn't sufficient to keep his three grain-hauling trucks on the road this year. He has laid off the drivers. In addition, he said, he will not be hiring the five people he usually takes on during harvests, his busiest times of the year.

`Not seeing revenue'

"The economic impact of the drought doesn't end with me," he said. "If the trucks are not running, they don't need service, they don't need fuel, and they don't need new tires. That means the people in town are not seeing that revenue."

Wilmer, president of the Pocomoke City Chamber of Commerce, said, "If many of the other business owners [in town] wanted to be honest about it, they would say business is off a little bit."

Kenneth M. Bounds, a vice president of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, the state's largest agriculture lender, said most grain farmers are going to be disappointed this year when their checks come in.

"Their income is going to be off at least 50 percent and probably more like 75 percent," he said.

Although agriculture is an important part of Maryland's rural economy, Bradley H. Powers, the recently retired deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the current farm crisis is not going to result in boarded-up windows at small-town stores.

He echoed other state agricultural officials, including Thomas Fretz, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland, College Park, when he said, "Main Street is going to feel the pinch of the difficult times down on the farm, but it won't be enough to put stores out of business."

Powers said rural Maryland is different than farming regions in the Midwest. "Because of the state's diversified economy, even small-town stores and banks are not totally dependent on local farmers for much of their business."

"[But the farmers] ... are hurting," said Powers. "There is no doubt about that, but they have been through tough times in the past and most are going to survive this drought."

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