Drought bodes ill for state's crops

On the Farm

August 19, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

Reports on the damage done to crops by this summer's drought are beginning to roll in, and they don't bode well for Maryland farmers.

Many grain farmers, particularly those on the Lower Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland, can only stand by and watch as a lack of rain dries up their hopes of a bountiful fall harvest.

"It's disheartening," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson said. "There are areas of the state where the drought is every bit as bad as the one in 2002."

The 2002 drought was considered the worst in more than a century, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 21 of Maryland's 23 counties agriculture-disaster areas.

Based on field conditions as of Aug. 1, the Maryland office of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated last week that farmers would harvest 90 bushels of corn per acre planted this year.

Corn is in trouble

If that estimate holds, it would mean a 37 percent reduction from the harvest of 142 bushels of corn per acre statewide last year. It also would be the smallest yield since 2002, when the state average was 74 bushels of corn harvested from each acre planted.

A few thunderstorms over the past two weeks on the Eastern Shore deposited 2 to 3 inches of rain, but Richardson said the precipitation came too late to help corn.

"The corn crop is pretty well gone," he said.

Richardson said the recent rains could benefit soybeans, which are harvested later than corn.

The USDA is estimating that farmers will harvest 25 bushels of soybeans from each acre planted. If this estimate holds, the yield would be 26 percent lower than last year, when farmers harvested 34 bushels of corn per acre.

That would constitute the smallest since 2002, when the yield was a record-low 23 bushels per acre, said Lisa Jackson, a statistician with the USDA.

Going into the season, soybean acreage was expected to be down as farmers planted more corn to take advantage of high prices resulting from the crop's use in the production of ethanol, a gasoline extender.

As a result of reduced yield and acreage, total production of soybeans is expected to be down 34 percent, from 15.8 million bushels last year to 10.5 million bushels.

A 10.5 million bushel harvest would be the smallest in a decade, Jackson said.

Looked good in May

"In mid-May everything looked so good," Richardson said. "The crops were growing good; prices were good, and farmers were looking at their biggest corn crop in 15 years. But that's farming. It is a very risky business."

The risk is not limited to grain farmers. Richardson said dairy farmers were hit by the drought, as pastures have dried up, and some farmers have had to go out-of-state to find feed.

"Milk prices are up this year, but the higher cost of feed and feed transportation costs are cutting into their profits," the secretary said. "Some dairy farmers are already talking about selling their cattle."

Richardson said crop insurance would help farmers pay their bills this year, but it would not leave much to put in the bank. Most farmers have insurance to cover 70 percent to 80 percent of their corn crop, he said.

"That is enough to cover their fixed costs, like planting the crop, fuel and fertilizer, but the farmer won't make any money," Richardson said.

Maryland livestock farmers have exhausted hay supplies that would normally feed their animals through the winter.

To help farmers and the general public find feed for their horses, cattle and other animals, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has established a listing of hay sources on its Web site: www.mda.state.md.us. It list 63 suppliers in 20 Maryland counties, as well as one in Virginia.

The department is seeking to upgrade its list and asks that farms with supplies of hay contact Mark Powell, chief of marketing and agricultural development, at 410-841-5770, to be added to the list.

`Desperate for feed'

"Many livestock and horse owners are desperate for feed supplies because in many areas, there is no pasture and hay supplies are diminishing," Richardson said. "We are asking those with hay available to contact us so that we can provide an up-to-date listing to our farmers."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has requested that the USDA declare Maryland an agriculture-disaster area, a designation that could qualify farmers for low-interest loans to help them recover losses.

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