Queenstown farmer John Draper's corn crop looks bleak — ears that normally have 18 or 20 rows of kernels have 14 rows due to a lack of rain. Others have few or shriveled kernels, and some stalks haven't grown any ears at all.
Yet, with a shot at harvesting about 60 percent of his normal yield, Draper considers himself fortunate.
Drought conditions that have persisted across Maryland are expected to cut this year's corn crop yield in half. The weather also is threatening soybean crops, and driving up prices for all types of grains, squeezing livestock and poultry farmers. That in turn could push up meat and dairy prices at the store.
In the Midwest, the heart of U.S. farming is reeling during what meteorologists are calling the worst drought for the lower 48 states since 1956. President Barack Obama met Wednesday with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss the government's response to the drought.
Some lucky Maryland farmers have found themselves in the line of passing showers and thunderstorms, but widespread, soaking rains have been rare in 2012, making crop yields suffer. A mild winter and warm spring got the growing season off to an early start, but dry weather since last fall provided little soil moisture to help crops along.
Rainfall across the state for the first six months of 2012 was the fifth-lowest on record, and it was the lowest on record in Delaware, according to the National Climatic Data Center. At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, about 14 inches of rain have fallen so far this year, 8 inches short of normal.
"It's going to get ugly this year, I think," said Scott Youse, president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association board and a Caroline County farmer.
Anne Arundel County, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore are in moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. To the north of the Interstate 95 corridor, most of the state is considered abnormally dry.
Those dry zones have fluctuated during the spring and summer, with some portions of the lower Eastern Shore reaching "severe" drought conditions at times, according to the drought monitor. Other times, bouts of rainfall helped return most of the state to normal in recent months.
The Maryland Department of the Environment has the Eastern Shore and rural parts of Central Maryland under a drought watch, based on readings of stream flow, rainfall and groundwater.
According to other measures, the situation is more grave. Much of the Delmarva Peninsula is in severe to extreme drought, according to the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index, which takes into account precipitation totals and temperature.
The timing of recent heat caused crops more suffering. All but three days in July have posted high temperatures of 90 degrees or above at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
In late June or early July, flowery tassels sprout atop corn stalks, spreading pollen in the wind that sticks to the silks of corn ears and pollinates the kernels, said Robert Kratochvil, an associate professor and extension specialist for grain crops at the University of Maryland College Park. The nearly two week stretch of highs in the 90s and 100s baked out what little moisture was in the soil.
"It put the corn at a real disadvantage for even being able to pollinate," Kratochvil said of the heat.
The lack of water meant that when the pollen spread, many corn stalks hadn't even grown ears; other stalks aborted the process since there wasn't enough moisture.
In the week ending July 15, 29 percent of Maryland corn crops and 30 percent of its soybeans were considered in poor or very poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of the corn grown in Maryland is feed corn, used as animal feed, as opposed to sweet corn, a favorite for backyard barbecues.
"Of these last three years, which all have been drought years, this year is the worst," Kratochvil said. "I'm expecting the corn crop, at this point in time, if it's 50 percent of normal production I think we'll be lucky."
The lack of rainfall also raises the risk of fertilizers on corn feed sickening or killing livestock. The Maryland Department of Agriculture is offering farmers free testing of corn and Sudan-sorghum grasses used for animal feed.
Some farmers have gotten lucky with scattered rainfall, though. William Layton, a farmer in Dorchester County, said his crops are in good shape after two decent rains in two weeks. And grapes he grows at Layton's Chance Vineyard and Winery are thriving in the hot weather. But other farmers he knows haven't been as lucky.
"I know farmers 15 minutes down the road from me that are still burning up," Layton said.
Maryland is faring better than the rest of the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which said about half of the state's corn and soybeans were considered in good or excellent condition, compared with 31 percent of corn crops nationwide.
The drought has not affected fruit and vegetable crops, many of which are grown with irrigation systems. About 15 percent of Maryland' s corn and soybean crops also are grown on irrigated fields, Kratochvil said.
The drought's impact extends to dairy and poultry farmers because corn and soybean prices have skyrocketed in anticipation of constrained supply. Corn prices have risen about 40 percent in the past month and are expected to challenge a record of $7.99 per bushel set last June.
A bushel, which weighs 56 pounds, can feed a milking cow for about a week, said Youse, the Caroline County dairy farmer. But with prices so high, he said, "there is no profit in dairy right now."
Youse's farm near Denton has about 650 milking cows and about 750 acres of corn he uses to feed them, but he still has to buy feed. He recalled paying about $350 for a bag of soybean meal over the winter; now, the price is $518.
"That just doesn't pencil out when you're trying to feed an animal," Youse said.
While feed costs have risen, milk prices haven't, although they could if the high grain prices and hot weather constrict milk production, he said.
The rising corn prices could translate to higher food prices for consumers. The prices of beef, pork, poultry and dairy products could be the quickest and hardest hit, said Richard Volpe, a research economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service.
Prices for processed foods that contain corn also could be affected eventually, but any spike in food prices would be a fraction of the changes seen in corn prices, Volpe emphasized.
Soybean prices also are rising given the possibility of a shortage, but farmers like Draper hold out hope that rain will arrive to save the crops, which reach critical points in their reproductive cycle later in the summer. Without any irrigation on his farm, he has only one place to look for help.
"Just Mother Nature," he said.
Maryland crop conditionsPercentage of land statewide in each conditionFor week ending July 15 Very poorPoorFairGoodExcellentPasture142331302Corn1316213515Soybeans131724379Source: United States Department of AgricultureCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun