Spotty drought means trouble for many Md. farmers A LESS-THAN-BUMPER HARVEST


WHITE HALL -- It rained here yesterday at the Chenoweth Farm.

"It was only about a tenth of an inch," Vernon Chenoweth said as he leaned back in his aluminum-frame porch chair and stared out beyond the farm trucks and barn to the rolling fields of green.

A little rain might not seem like a big deal, but yesterday's gentle, life-giving shower -- combined with others in recent weeks -- has the farm's corn standing tall and looking healthy.

And that should enable Vernon and Fran Chenoweth to harvest a lot more corn and soybeans from their farm this year than last.

MA "It's not going to be a great crop," Mr. Chenoweth said, "but

it's going to be better than last year, when we lost money like every other farmer around here."

According to figures released yesterday by the state Department of Agriculture, Maryland growers are in line for only a slightly better harvest than that of a year ago, when a severe drought and hot weather devastated crops in the central part of the state.

M. Bruce West, head of the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Statistics Service, said that based on field conditions Aug. 1, this year's corn crop is expected to average 105 bushels an acre, compared with a yield of 95 bushels an acre a year ago. The state average was 118 bushels in 1990, Mr. West said. In a good year, many farms will yield 120 to 125 bushels per acre.

Mr. West said that for the second year in a row, nature is making life difficult for farmers in some sections of the state.

"Things are pretty bad in the midsection of the state," he said, noting that Caroline, Talbot,Queen Anne's and Dorchester counties have all had drought conditions.

"Caroline seemed to be the worst," he said. "There are fields there where I would be surprised if the yield is 20 bushels an acre."

The spot droughts in Maryland come at a time when Corn Belt farmers are having one of their better years and prices are being depressed by expectations of a bumper harvest.

"Prices are pretty terrible," Mr. West said, noting that corn has been selling as low as $2.50 a bushel in the central part of the state and $2.29 on the Eastern Shore, down from $2.70 at this time last year. Soybeans, he said, are bringing $5.25 a bushel, compared with $5.50 last year and $7.50 a few years ago.

"These prices are not going to generate any windfall profits," Mr. West said. "It's going to be nip and tuck if farmers break even or not.

Looking at the state agriculture industry as a whole, Mr. West estimated that consolidated net farm income this year will be about the same as in 1991. Last year, it dropped nearly 15 percent, to $391.7 million from $457 million.

On a brighter note, Mr. West said that if things go as expected this year, barley crop will be the best ever. Based on a survey this month, Mr. West said, the barley harvest should come in at 73 bushels an acre, up from 64 bushels last year.

This year's tobacco, apple and peach crops are expected to be about the same as last year's.

Expressing hope that the rains will continue and that his beans will mature before frost, Mr. Chenoweth said, "The profit margins in farming are not that great. When you have one bad year, it takes two or three to recover what you lost. We're hoping for a good year, but in farming everything is a big gamble."

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