HAVRE DE GRACE -- The Year of Our Lord 1996 drains squishily toward its close, and there is water everywhere. It's flowing into the pond faster than the 8-inch tile drain through the dam can take it away, and creeping up the banks around the trunks of the maples. It's rushing down stream beds. It's dripping from the morose faces of the cows, and exploring new ways to get into my cellar.
Out in the fields it's made big shallow lakes in places which before this year even the Corps of Engineers wouldn't have suspected were wetlands in disguise. The soil, which 18 months ago was seared by drought and powder-dry, is now nearly saturated. The springs illustrate this graphically.
A well-watered farm is a fortunate farm, and we're lucky enough to have half a dozen springs that flow all year under normal conditions. They're bubbling away now as though driven by subterranean pumps. We have two or three that I consider wet-weather springs, but which ran all last summer and are running harder than ever now. Besides those, a couple of springs I never knew existed have suddenly burst out of dry hillsides, producing little swamps deep enough to bog a tractor.
We've had about a foot more rain in 1996 than in 1995, and it's certainly left its mark on Maryland farms. It's been a great year for growing, not so great for harvesting. There's some wonderful corn, but much of it is still in the fields because equipment can't get through the mud to reach it. Hay grew like kudzu last summer, but it was hard to get it cured, so this winter it's going to be in short supply and expensive.
Some foresighted person, anticipating this, stole about a pickup load of hay out of my barn the other night. I'm proud, naturally, that the quality of my hay is so appreciated, and I hope this discerning individual comes back soon so I can express this and other sentiments to him -- or her. I've also bought some fresh 12-gauge goose loads for this purpose.
Rather than feed expensive hay to cheap cattle, a lot of farmers are responding to low beef prices by culling their worst cows, which forces prices down farther still. People who know the cattle business much better than I do predict it won't really improve until 1999. That seems like a long time, especially when you think the Clintons will still be around.
Too big for the job
I just sold a bull I've had for two years, partly because I didn't want to feed him over another winter and partly because I thought he'd gotten too big to do his job efficiently. He weighed 2,505 pounds when he got to the Lancaster stockyards. He won't make 10,020 McDonald's quarter-pounders, but he'll make a lot of them. He only brought 30 cents a pound, incidentally. If McDonald's can buy hamburger for 30 cents a pound, that means there's 7.5 cents worth of meat in a quarter-pounder. Somebody's making some money there, but it isn't the cattleman.
On the subject of meat, this is the first year in some time that the deer seem thicker around here than the deer hunters. Last year about 10 deer were shot on our farm; this year, only five. One reason, I suppose, is that there's still a lot of standing corn, which gives the deer a pleasant place to spend their days while lTC the hunters are out in the woods sitting in trees.
Another reason is the rain. Hunters often talk about how much they like to hunt in the rain, but they also seem to like to come out of the woods at about 10 o'clock on a rainy morning, peel off their soaked orange outfits, and have a nice sandwich and a cup of coffee. While they're doing that, the deer take the opportunity to change cornfields.
It occurs to me that farmers are sort of like generals, in that they're always getting ready to fight the last war over again, and being surprised when the next war turns out to be quite different. And I'm certainly no exception.
When it was so dry a year ago all I could think of was irrigation pipe and drought-resistant strains of alfalfa. This spring, after a winter in which it snowed almost five feet, I decided the time had come to buy a new set of tractor chains. This fall, what's on my mind? Buying a couple more wagons, so that next summer we can get more hay under cover more quickly.
All good ideas, but all a little like locking the barn after the hay has been stolen, or however the proverb goes. The best farmers, like the best generals, are prepared for the next challenge whether or not it's like the one just past. They're already planning for next summer's drought, while the rest of us are just sitting here enjoying the rain.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 12/15/96