Drought declared a disaster by the U.S.

But federal move may give little relief to state's farmers

August 23, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The drought that has browned corn stalks across the state will be declared a disaster by the federal government, a designation that will allow farmers to get low-interest loans, Gov. Martin O'Malley's announced yesterday.

The problem has been particularly severe in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, where fields have been withered by the lack of rain.

The impact has been worsened by the decision of many farmers to plant more corn - a drought-sensitive crop - in hopes of taking advantage of the high demand for ethanol, which has boosted prices.

"This is welcome news for Maryland farmers who have been hard-hit by drought conditions this summer," O'Malley said in a statement. "We estimate that farmers in Maryland have lost between 30 and 60 percent of their crop, and we hope this disaster designation will provide some relief."

However, the loans are only good if two banks reject a farmer for loans. Because land in Maryland is valuable, farmers say that is unlikely.

"It really does not help us," said Lewis Smith of Easton, whose 400 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat have been nearly wiped out by the dry conditions.

Smith said his corn crop will yield zero to 50 bushels an acre, where it usually produces 150 bushels an acre.

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson acknowledged that most established farmers have long-standing relationships with their local banks and won't be eligible for these loans. Some younger farmers might be helped by it, though, he said.

But this step could lead to other help, Richardson said. Several other states have applied for drought disasters, and if a national disaster fund is established, Maryland farmers could receive additional benefits.

The drought declaration also means the federal government could decide to loosen restrictions on the harvest of grasses from buffer zones around drainage ditches, which would help livestock and dairy farmers, Richardson said.

Those grasses are planted to prevent nutrient runoff into streams, so farmers are usually penalized if they harvest them, Richardson said.

But now that the government has declared a disaster in Maryland, it could lift that restriction and farmers could cut the grass and feed it to livestock.

"It's not good hay," Richardson said. "But I say, it's better than feeding them snowballs."

andy.green@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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