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WET WEATHER GOES AGAINST THE GRAIN Wheat farmers having difficulty harvesting crop


This spring, western Howard County farmers were worried that this year would be a disaster for them. The wet season was dry, and normal summer rains wouldn't make up for the lost moisture.

Yesterday, the sweat that poured down Rick Warfield's face was tangible evidence of the pressure the area's recent heavy rains have put on county wheat growers.

"Too much rain is a bad thing," he said as he hurried to his mechanized hay wagon. A few minutes later, he was rushing to stack bales on the wagon from a rented field off Route 32 in Clarksville.

For those who love farm-fresh corn and other produce, the excessive rains aren't likely to raise most prices at Howard-area stands.

But they do affect wheat farmers: Their plants are maturing faster but can't be harvested wet. Moisture also causes wheat grain to sprout and straw to mildew, both of which reduce the wheat's value.

It's said that farmers are rarely satisfied with the weather. This year, county farmers had good reason to complain about both extremes when it came to rainfall.

In March, 2.24 inches of rain fell -- about 1.5 inches below average. In April, rainfall dropped to a dismal 1.57 inches -- less than half the 30-year average for the month.

"I think most people were actually scared to death because when we normally got our rains, we got nothing," said Lambert Cissel Jr., a sod farmer who lives in Daisy.

"On the first of June, the subsoil was dry; everybody thought we were going to get a disaster year."

Even though May rain was an inch heavier than average, June was about an inch less than normal. By the beginning of this

month, Howard County rainfall was still 3.31 inches less than average for the growing season.

Then the rains came. Last week, the first week of July, Howard County received 3.43 inches of rain.

"Normal for July is 3.45 inches, so we got the whole month's rain in one week," said Carroll Homann, a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.

Mr. Cissel has to mow his sod every three days instead of the usual practice of not mowing until fall.

Since Saturday, when the rain let up for a bit, Mr. Warfield and his half-brother, Mike Clark, have worked at a frantic pace to get their wheat harvested -- something they couldn't do for several weeks because the grain was too wet.

The grain has begun to sprout, possibly enough to reduce its value to buyers. Mildew is beginning to darken the straw, stalks nearly as valuable as the grain because local landscapers prefer wheat straw as a cover for freshly seeded lawns.

And rushing to harvest after the sun's been out for a day is more complicated than most people think, said County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, who just finished harvesting his sprouting wheat Sunday evening.

"Not every farmer has a combine, so you have to wait your turn," said Mr. Feaga, who had to pay another farmer to bring in a combine to cut his wheat, separate the grain from the chaff and bale the straw.

Another side effect of the delayed harvest is potential harm to corn and soybeans -- what many farmers plant on their wheat fields for the second half of the season, Mr. Homann said.

"If they don't get corn and soybeans in the ground real soon, they could be running into frost damage in the fall," he said.

Mr. Warfield said he and Mr. Clark hope to plant soybeans by July 20, but the wet weather is making that deadline difficult to meet.

Their mother, Barbara Warfield, said the recent rains made for a busy weekend.

"The two good drying days we had were Saturday and Sunday," said Mrs. Warfield, explaining that the wheat can't be harvested with a combine until it's had a chance to dry in the field. Still damp, the grain has to be run through a drying machine, which takes time and adds to the farm's expenses, she said.

The dryer cost the family even more time Sunday morning when its motor broke down, an event followed by an unexpected Sunday night shower, she said.

But by yesterday, the motor had been fixed and the brothers had brought in about 70 of their 120 acres of wheat. They hoped the sun would see them through harvesting the remaining 50 acres.

If the National Weather Service forecast proves accurate, they should get that chance through this weekend, with hazy, hot and humid weather predicted.

"Farmers have a miraculous way of getting caught up," Mr. Homann said.


Rainfall in Howard County this growing season has defied the averages:

Month ... ... ... 1995 rainfall ... ... ... 30-year rainfall

March ... ... ... 2.24 ... ... ... .... .... 3.71

April ... ... ... 1.57 ... ... .... ... .... 3.50

May ... ... ..... 5.70 ... .... ... .... ... 4.47

June ... ... .... 2.73 ... .... ... ... .... 3.87

July* ... ... ... 3.43* .... ... ... ... ... 3.45

* through July 7

SOURCE: Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service

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