Parched

August 02, 2007

There is bad luck and then there is a Maryland corn farmer's luck. Three months of drought have proved just how bad the latter can be. After several years of bountiful crops but low prices, corn farmers find themselves in a far worse predicament this summer: Corn prices are at record highs, but the drought has dramatically lowered production.

How hard hit is Maryland's corn crop? Estimates won't be officially released until Aug. 10, but Maryland Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson says farmers in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore are anticipating that corn yields will be off by 70 percent. Recent rainfall has made the situation somewhat less dire for soybean farmers, who may see a 25 percent decline in production.

Last week, Gov. Martin O'Malley asked federal authorities to declare all Maryland counties a disaster area in order to potentially qualify farmers for low-interest loans. That would be helpful, but perhaps only marginally so. Most farmers don't require government-secured loans; they'll end up taking losses and tightening their belts - all of which will likely have a ripple effect on the economy, particularly in the rural counties.

Farming remains Maryland's single largest industry, with more than $2.2 billion in gross income each year. Grain farmers may be the worst hit by the drought, but they aren't alone. Dairy farmers have seen pastures dry up and may have to buy hay for the winter. Poultry farmers will have to import more grain. Others, such as nurseries and sod farms, have been forced to spend more money on irrigation.

The one bright spot is that a growing number of farmers have been purchasing crop insurance. More should follow suit, particularly small farmers who have been reluctant to spend the money on premiums. State officials estimate that about 65 percent of corn acreage is insured. That won't replace lost profits, but it will mean insured farmers won't suffer losses.

Risk has always been part of farming, but crop insurance is one way to manage that risk. Farmers had a terrific spring for planting, but corn needs moisture in July - when the state saw precious little rain. It's a painful reminder that weather, like politics, is often unreliable.

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