Rain was too little, too late Shore farms resigned to a reduced harvest


FEDERALSBURG -- Forty days with little or no rain and the midsummer heat wave have left the Eastern Shore's farmland as brown as an old sepia-toned photograph.

Acre after acre is stunted and dry, and area farmers say they expect severely diminished yields this year -- in some cases, less than a third of what they normally get. Hardest hit are corn and soybeans, the Shore's biggest crops.

"Corn? It could rain from now to next planting time, it wouldn't help any," Caroline County farmer Wheatley Neal said yesterday. "The rain we got Saturday was super, but we need probably three more inches like that."

Bad weather two ways -- too much heat in July, not enough rain in August and September -- wrecked his corn and soybean crops, said Mr. Neal, a third-generation farmer who tills 3,500 acres with the help of two sons-in-law, one hired hand and his 13-year-old grandson.

"The heat in July was what fixed us," he said of his damaged corn crop. "Heat's more detrimental to the corn than the dry. When the corn is pollinating, it can't take those 100-degree temperatures. And the heat and the dry together in August fixed the soybeans. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."

Preliminary figures gathered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture support Mr. Neal's bleak assessment.

"The crop has been hurt significantly," said Harold Kanarek, a public information officer with the department. Although a final report won't be completed on the crop damage until next month, he offered some preliminary estimates of damage to corn and soybeans, county by county.

In Caroline, where Mr. Neal farms, "We're looking at 25 percent to 75 percent crop loss," Mr. Kanarek said yesterday. The range is wide because some parts of the county got a little rain in September and August, while others got none.

In Dorchester, Kent and Queen Anne's counties, the estimate is 40 percent loss. In Somerset County, the crop losses are 33 percent; in Talbot, 45 percent.

On the Lower Shore, Wicomico has been hardest hit, with estimates of damage ranging from 50 percent to 70 percent (the eastern portion of the county has had severe drought, Mr. Kanarek said). Worcester County is showing losses of 40 percent.

"I can't give you a dollar figure," Mr. Kanarek said. "The dollar figure depends on the market value and that varies."

Last year, he said, corn for grain statewide had a $51 million market value; soybeans brought $94.6 million. Statewide, 390,000 acres were planted in corn and 550,000 acres in soybeans, with the bulk of that grown on the Shore, he said.

While the state works to document the damage, a federal agency in Columbia is doing the same, with an eye to getting help from Uncle Sam for next year's crop.

"We've gotten some indication of losses through the crop insurance program," said Steve Peterson, a program specialist with the Consolidated Farm Service Agency, which reports to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I think soybeans are going to be the biggest crop hit."

Most of the requests for assistance have come from Caroline, Queen Anne's, Talbot, Dorchester, Wicomico and Worcester counties, he said; Kent County benefited from some of the spotty rain reported earlier this month.

Despite those scattered showers, rainfall on the western side of the Shore remains well below normal levels for the months of September and August, said National Weather Service observer John Swaine Jr.

"For August, we should have had 5.09 inches," he said. Instead, the rain gauge in Royal Oak, where Mr. Swaine has been an NWS observer since 1948, showed only .78 at month's end. For September, he's recorded an inch so far (all from Saturday's all-night rain).

"Showers don't do any good -- we need an all-night rain," said Mr. Neal. The low yield for two big crops has really hurt him for the year, he said, although two other crops have done passably well. The majority of his fields -- 2,300 of 3,500 acres tilled -- were planted in soybeans this year.

"The wheat and barley are going to be a big help this year, but I don't know if it'll be enough to do the job," he said as he looked across fields left brown by the dry spell. "If it's not, I'm going to have to go see my banker."

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