Central Maryland farmers who were bedeviled by drought and low yields last year are finding the opposite problem this summer: lots of hay to mow, but it's selling for half the price.
"Buck a bale," is what Westminster farmer David Leister said he got for his timothy, a type of grass, at last week's Westminster Hay Auction.
Enter the federal government to help even out things.
A network of federal Farm Service Agency offices is offering to link hay producers such as Leister with livestock farmers in drought-stricken parts of the country where feed is scarce.
It's a program to help farmers help each other.
It could provide David and Linda Leister -- who operate a farm on Old Manchester Road -- with a better return on the days of growing, mowing, drying and baling required to bring their hay to market.
At the auction Tuesday, David Leister removed his cap, wiped his brow and looked to the side. His wife held one of their children on her hip while another child ran around her in circles to pass the time.
Auctioneer Nevin Tasto launched into a banjo-like singsong, reciting figures that brought Leister $1 a bale for timothy, which sold for about $3.50 a bale last year. Alfalfa, oat straw and other types of hay went for about $3.50 a bale, compared with $7 a bale last year.
"It done right fair today," Tasto said as the auction ended.
In Texas and the Carolinas, farmers are as desperate for hay and feed as Maryland livestock farmers were last year. The federal hay network could put Leister in touch with those buyers.
"I'd be interested in that," Leister said. He plans to find out more about the program.
The Leisters could get a lot more, say, from a rancher in Texas, where farmers already have mowed cornstalks for feed. The stalks never had a chance to produce ears because there wasn't enough rain early in the season.
The network of U.S. Department of Agriculture offices in counties across the country is using its database to link farmers, said Kelly Hereth, executive director of the Farm Service Agency office in Westminster.
Hereth said Maryland hay is more likely to go to states closer than Texas, but the drought in Texas and Oklahoma is so vast and severe that it affects agriculture all over the country.
"We're encouraging farmers who need hay or have surplus hay to have their names placed on the hay network," said Jim Voss, state executive director for the Farm Service Agency.
In the past, the agency has provided emergency livestock feed assistance to farmers who fell victim to natural disasters. State and local governments also sponsored hay lifts, which disbursed hay donated by producers with a surplus. Last year, Frederick County bought hay for its farmers from Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Some of that hay went to farmers in surrounding counties, including Carroll.
"Last year, we had some people who contributed hay to farmers in Carroll County in a non-formal way," said David L. Greene, director of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service office in Carroll County. The hay came from farmers in West Virginia and Southern Maryland who heard about the drought in Central Maryland and called to offer help.
The USDA hasn't had emergency feed-assistance money to give out for two years, but it does have a network of 2,500 Farm Service Agency offices across the country.
Hereth, for example, can plug into a database to find counties that "have hay" and counties that "need hay."
Carroll is a "have hay" county, so hay producers can call her office for a list of the "need hay" counties, and the names of farmers who are willing to buy.
"Need hay" counties can call up her list of local producers to give to their livestock farmers hungry for a new source of feed.
It will be up to the farmers to negotiate price and delivery terms. Farmers will likely look for the closest matches to make delivery easier.
When the federal government offers to help, farmers -- many of whom have an independent streak -- react with as much skepticism as relief.
The involvement of the Farm Service Agency in the hay program will be minimal out of necessity -- no additional money has been appropriated and the offices are understaffed, Hereth said. That should give the program added appeal.
Keith Martin, who buys, sells and grows his own hay on his farm in Upperco, northwest Baltimore County, isn't sure he trusts the government.
He felt frozen out of a hay lift organized by federal agencies during the 1980s, but if the Farm Service Agency is willing to let farmers contact each other, he's interested.
"It sounds better than what they've done before," Martin said.
Pub Date: 8/24/98