Md. farmers' hope for wet spring withers in face of drought


A rapidly developing drought and unseasonably hot weather throughout Maryland has stolen the early promise of this year's wet spring, parching lawns and gardens and raising fears among farmers of a return to the disastrously dry growing years of the mid-1980s.

"If we don't get rain within the next week, we're coming up on a serious situation here," said Bruce West, statistician for the state Agriculture Department. "I can't remember any year starting out this dry this early. Usually our droughts are in July and August."

Last night, Mr. West's hopes may have been partially fulfilled. Thunderstorms with scattered heavy rain moved through Howard, Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties and parts of Anne Arundel County and Baltimore city.

But in western Howard County, the strawberries have already been "absolutely fried" and the corn is "starting to curl," said Roberta Weber, agricultural agent with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

Near Westminster in Carroll County, Allan Baugher installed water tanks in his pick-your-own strawberry fields and douses the paths between rows "so my customers aren't choking on the dust."

Yes, it's dry. As of yesterday afternoon, only 0.07 inch of rain had fallen at Baltimore-Washington International Airport since May 17, a drop in the bucket that puts the precipitation deficit for 1991 at 3.73 inches below normal through the end of May and 5.01 inches below normal through June 10.

Baltimore has it even worse, with only 0.04 inches of rainfall measured at the Custom House in the past 25 days. For

the year through May 31, that amounts to a deficit of 5.26 inches. Through June 10, the shortfall is an estimated 6.42 inches.

And statewide, the picture is equally grim. The driest area in Maryland as of June 7 was the north central region that includes Baltimore and Baltimore County.

But it's followed closely by Western Maryland and upper Southern Maryland, and only small, scattered areas have ex

perienced the infrequent thunderstorms that produce rapid runoff, not the soaking rain so badly needed to restore moisture.

"North central is in the moderate drought category," said Mr. West, referring to a standard index that rates the severity of an agricultural drought according to the deficiency of soil moisture.

In the four dry growing seasons that finally ended in 1989, some areas of the state -- and vast areas of the Midwest Corn Belt -- were classified as suffering from "extreme" drought, the most severe category.

The National Weather Service was calling for a chance of showers and thunderstorms this evening, but more dry weather through Friday and Saturday, said Fred Davis, chief meteorologist at BWI.

The hot, dry weather seems all the more treacherous for farmers because the season began well. Although snowfall was slight this year, and February was extremely dry, January and March featured above-normal precipitation.

At the airport, March ended with a total of 5.65 inches of rain, nearly 2 inches above normal. Downtown, the National Weather Service measured 5.03 inches, which was 1.10 inches above normal.

Baltimore's three municipal water reservoirs are still bulging from the spring runoff. Along the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County, Loch Raven Reservoir is just a foot below its 240-foot maximum. Water levels behind the 420-foot dam at Liberty Reservoir are 417 feet, and Prettyboy Reservoir stands at 518 feet, 2 feet short of its 520-foot dam, according to Baltimore's Department of Public Works.

Farmers took advantage of earlywarm weather to get a two-week head start on planting, said Dick Curran, director of the Cooperative Extension Service office in Baltimore County. Ironically, the Maryland peach crop -- usually decimated by late freezes -- has weathered the heat and drought and promises to be "the best in years," he said.

April featured precipitation deficits of 1.67 inches at both the airport and the Custom House. The area's dry May ended with nine days when the high at BWI reached 90 degreesor higher. For the month, temperatures at the airport averaged 7.2 degrees above normal. And, through June 10, temperatures at BWI are averaging 3 degrees above normal, Mr. Davis said. Downtown, the readings are 4 degrees above normal.

Maryland's three-week strawberry season was shortened by about a week because of the hot temperatures, which forced the berries to ripen quicker. Most strawberries, melons and an increasing percentage of commercially grown vegetables inthe state are irrigated.

"The picking was good for a little more than two weeks, but this is our last day for picking strawberries," Polly Moore said yesterday at the family-owned and -operated Larriland Farm off Route 94 in Lisbon.

Corn foliage is "beginning to curl," Mr. Curran said. "Some farmers are holding off on their planting, and some have planted crops like sorghum when their corn didn't come up."

Barry Morton, a York County, Pa.,farmer who manages a 650-acre soybean and corn farm just west of Columbia near Route 108, said only a half-inch of rain has fallen on the farm since the corn was planted April 20.

"We're not expecting a disaster because we're hoping for a few thunderstorms to come around," he said. "The [corn] plants are smaller than they should be, and if it rains at this point, we should have a 20 percent reduction of yield."

Mr. Baugher also predicted thathis family's farm operations will experience "a reduction in crops if we have another week of this. A couple more weeks, and we're into big losses."

But, "Farmers operate on faith or hope or something," he said. "If we get water, we'll be happy. If not, we'll take the loss and pray for better times."

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