Nature's whims cause farmer's hopes to wither

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW WINDSOR -- Melvin E. Baile Jr. scooped up a handful of dusty soil and let it slide through his fingers until he found two soybean seeds.

Mr. Baile planted the seeds nearly two weeks ago, but they were as dry and barren as two pebbles -- with no sign of germination or growth. Some plants in the farm field had grown but died in the extreme heat. Others were hanging on to a runty existence.

The rolling Carroll County hills of the Baile family's Brookside Farms usually are swathed during midsummer in the green of fledgling soybean plants 4 inches high. Instead, the hills were a ,, parched brown, the defeated color of the barley stubble in which the seed was sown.

"I planted 66 acres of soybeans that Friday in anticipation of rain that evening. It was a sure shot to rain," said the 30-year-old farmer, a powerfully built man in T-shirt and cut-off jeans. "But we received three-hundredths of an inch of rain, just three-hundredths."

And Mr. Baile, who farms more than 600 acres -- two-thirds of it rented -- with his father in the Wakefield Valley, hasn't seen more than a few drops of rain since.

"That's dust," the farmer said disgustedly, scooping up another handful of soil. "The Sahara has to have more moisture in it than this.

"It's going to take us three years to dig out of the hole this year has created, and some people may not dig out. There could be a rash of farm sales next spring. This could be the last straw for some farmers," Mr. Baile said.

While the soybeans have a chance of partial recovery if rain comes, the farmer said that the damage already has been done to his 150 acres of field corn.

The corn, planted the first week of May, is chest-high. Usually it would have grown beyond his reach, Mr. Baile said.

And the kernels aren't developing. The extreme heat and lack of moisture are choking off the plant's attempts to pollinate itself.

July is tasseling and silking time for corn, a critical stage of the plant's growth. The male florets of the tassel atop the cornstalk produce pollen. The wind blows the pollen onto the threadlike silk protruding beyond the corn ear's protective husk. The pollen travels through the silk to fertilize the female florets on the cob.

"I'm a grain farmer. I want those kernels," Mr. Baile said. "But we're probably at a 50 percent loss at least, even if we started receiving adequate moisture tomorrow. It could be a 100 percent loss."

What's worse, the farmer said, at least from his point of view, is that drought has not devastated the Midwestern Corn Belt. That means the corn harvest will be plentiful and prices low, about $2.50 now per 56-pound bushel of kernels.

"We have rain-driven grain markets, and we're in the midst of our worst drought. I can't see any other year matching this," Mr. Baile said.

Melvin Baile grew up on the family land and never seriously considered doing anything but farming. He confesses to being an optimist. But recurring drought, low prices and encroaching development sometimes shake his faith.

"We've had droughts on this farm in 1980, '83, '86, '88 and now '91. I don't know if somebody is trying to tell me something or what," he said. "This job is weather-dependent, but this is getting ridiculous."

He says other farmers have the same doubts. When the county commodity marketing club -- a group of farmers that periodically grouses about farm prices over coffee and doughnuts -- met last Friday, "it was basically a support group," the farmer said.

Mr. Baile is also a modern farm manager. He religiously rotates crops, faithfully has soils tested and regularly consults with a pest management expert to avoid over-applying pesticides.

"If fertilizer was the problem, or if I didn't have weed control, or if insects were causing it to die, I could blame myself," Mr. Baile said. "In my opinion these crops here have the best available management, and the limiting factor was the weather."

"He's a good manager," agreed Tom Ford, a county extension agent.

Mr. Ford and Greg Stockdale were standing, heads bowed, over a 9-acre plot of beans like mourners at a burial when Mr. Baile pulled up in his pickup truck.

"If it's not good news, don't tell me," called out Mr. Baile, whose gentle sense of humor hasn't withered in the heat.

"Go home then," replied Mr. Stockdale, the pest management expert, only half-joking.

The bad news was that bacterial blight and spider mites continued to attack the leaves of the black turtle bean plants, despite Mr. Baile's efforts to control them.

"The more leaf area you lose, the less energy the plant has to give to the beans," Mr. Stockdale said.

If that wasn't bad enough, the plants were only about a foot high, half their usual size, because of the drought. Many bean pods were hanging so low to the ground that they probably would be lopped off by the combine and lost during harvest a month hence.

Mr. Stockdale and Mr. Ford said that they have been dispensing plenty of bad news around the county -- most of which didn't come as news at all to worried farmers.

"For all your crops except new soybeans, your damage is done," Mr. Ford said.

"Corn is least able to recover because it is further along," Mr. Stockdale said. "Any corn planted late is hurt even worse. It's about knee-high and just won't make anything."

Mr. Stockdale said that the drought is localized. Some areas of neighboring Baltimore and Frederick counties are managing reasonably well, he said.

But in most of Carroll County, "I think it's worse than '88," he said. "And it gets worse every day."

Mr. Stockdale said, "A good many farmers have really gotten discouraged. I think that if this continues this year, some farmers won't be able to make it."

"Farm wives are being forced to go back to work and look for off-farm jobs," Mr. Ford added.

Mr. Baile's wife, Joan, runs a family day-care operation at their FTC nearby house while she cares for their children, Matthew, 5, and Lauren, 20 months.

"The more kids I see there, the happier I am," the farmer joked.

Mr. Baile said federal disaster assistance wouldn't help him much. It probably would be mainly feed for dairy and livestock farmers and low-interest loans, neither of which he wants.

"A loan is not what's needed. Rain is what's needed," he said.

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