The hot and dry summer has cost Maryland farmers more than $57 million in lost crops, and things are expected to get worse, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland Emergency Board said yesterday as he started the paperwork that could qualify 17 counties for federal drought disaster relief.
The crop loss figure "is a very conservative estimate," said James R. Richardson, director of the board. "Much of the corn is gone, and it won't bounce back. The only crop that could bounce back is soybeans. We will know a lot more about this in the next couple of weeks."
Based on field surveys completed yesterday, the Emergency Board concluded that six counties -- Allegany, Frederick, Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's -- have experienced at least a 50 percent loss in agriculture production. They are being recommended by the board for federal relief.
Mr. Richardson said that five other counties -- Washington, Baltimore, Queen Anne's, Charles and St. Mary's -- have experienced the 40 percent loss needed to technically qualify for the disaster designation but were not being recommended at this time because they barely qualify. "We would like to wait a few weeks and see what happens there," he said.
Mr. Richardson said that Montgomery, Harford and Cecil counties "are on the fence" and could qualify as severe drought regions within the next week.
Because of the way the law is written, Mr. Richardson explained, counties contiguous to those designated by the USDA as disaster regions also qualify for the designation.
Comparing this year's drought with those in past years, Mr. Richardson said: "My gut reaction is that it's worse this year than in 1987 and '88. The dry weather hit earlier this time, and it was a lot hotter."
The dry growing season in 1988 cost state farmers more than $210 million in lost crops.
Frederick County seems to be suffering the brunt of Mother Nature's wrath this summer. The board estimated $18.2 million in crop losses as of yesterday. Half of the county's corn, hay and oat crops dried up in the fields. Seventy-five percent of the
pasture land has turned from a lush green to golden brown unfit to sustain livestock.
In Carroll County, where rainfall is nearly 8 1/2 inches below normal since March 1, the board estimates the damage at $12.2 million. The board estimates that 60,000 acres of corn and 15,000 acres of hay have been destroyed.
Dairy farmers, largely in Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties, "are being hit the hardest" by the adverse weather, said Tony Evans, the Maryland Department of Agriculture representative at yesterday's meeting.
Most dairy farmers in the state grow their own corn, soybeans, alfalfa and hay to feed their cows. The loss of these crops, on top of the drying up of their pasture land, will force them to buy meal, and this will eat into their profits.
Norman Astle, a spokesman for the Maryland Farm Bureau, noted that dairy farmers are getting hit with a double whammy.
The poor growing season comes at a time when the price they receive for their milk is at a 10-year low, he said.
In the case of some already financially shaky milking operations, he said, the drought could be the factor that leads to the loss of the farm.
Lovers of locally grown Silver Queen sweet corn and vine-ripened Maryland tomatoes need not worry about shortages the vegetables, at least at this time. Mr. Evans said that there is a normal supply available at the 45 farmers' markets around the state. He cautioned, however, that a corn shortage could show up in coming weeks if the rains don't come.
Yesterday's action by the Emergency Board is the first step in having the drought-plagued counties designated disaster areas. The information presented at yesterday's meeting next goes to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who then would write a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan requesting a disaster designation.
Lynn Shreffler, an official with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said that the governor would take the necessary action immediately. Mr. Richardson estimates that the entire process will be completed within 10 days.
Mr. Richardson said that once the disaster designation has been made, farmers could purchase grain from the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. at below-market prices. He said that farmers also would be allowed to use land that had been taken out of production to qualify for the government's price-support program for grazing. In some cases, farmers may qualify for low-interest, 4.5 percent emergency loans.
PTC William Walmsley of the Maryland-Delaware Farmers Home Administration office said that farmers experiencing a 30 percent crop loss would qualify for the loans if they cannot obtain financing through commercial lenders.