"This could be my best crop ever," Joe Mullhausen said yesterday morning as he disappeared into a thicket of dark green corn stalks towering 10 feet, maybe 12 feet, above the ground.
Mullhausen, 70, a stocky, white-haired farmer, planted 130 acres of field corn this year at his home farm near Prospect and on rented land in northeastern Harford County.
He said the ears are longer, thicker and the kernels are deeper. "I doubt that I will live long enough to see a better crop than this," he said. "It's tremendous. It's hard to believe."
Mullhausen is not alone in his praise of the state corn crop, which is still a couple of months away from harvest. Other farmers in other regions of the state are just as excited. Agriculture officials are predicting a record harvest, sparing a disaster such as a late season hurricane or hailstorm.
State consumers are sharing in the good times down on the farm.
The nearly ideal growing conditions that produced such a good field corn crop is doing the same for another summertime delicacy - fresh, succulent sweet corn.
Agriculture officials say sweet corn is plentiful this year, as tasty as ever, and the price is right.
Robert Hutchison doesn't grow sweet corn, but he has a lot of field corn in the ground, nearly 4,000 acres of it on farms around Cordova in Talbot County.
"This looks like my best crop ever," he said. "With the rains we had this week, it's going to be my best crop or pretty close to it."
The Eastern Shore grain farmer expects to harvest 30 percent, possibly 40 percent, more corn per acre this year than he would in a normal growing season.
Ted Haas, a regional agronomist with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, is predicting a record corn harvest for the state that could easily top of the old mark of 139 bushels per acre, set in 1996.
"I've been on the Eastern Shore for 29 years and I've never seen a prettier crop," Haas said. "I'm very optimistic. I see a lot of 200-plus bushels per acres coming from Eastern Shore farms this year."
He said the normal yield in that part of the state is about 130 bushels per acre.
Last year, when much of the Eastern Shore was plagued by serious drought, Haas said, "Farmers were lucky if they got 70 or 80 bushels per acre."
Charles "Jamie" Jameson grows 1,100 acres of field corn at his farm near Poolesville in western Montgomery County.
He, too, is sharing in the good times. Jameson laughs and says he would like to credit his good fortune this year to his management skills, but passes the credit along to Mother Nature.
He points out another big bonus re- sulting from the plentiful rains. "A lot of my corn has two ears to the stalk. That's unusual. It's going to add to my yield. It's going to be a tremendous yield."
The only dark cloud over this year's growing season has to do with the price farmers will be getting for their corn this year.
As a result of an anticipated big harvest throughout the country and a large stock of corn already in government storage, prices are unprofitably low, according to Kevin McNew, an agriculture economist with the University of Maryland College Park.
"Prices are the sour note of an otherwise phenomenal year," said McNew. He said corn prices, which were above $3 a bushel in 1997, are slightly below $2 at this time.
But this year's expected record harvest will help offset the impact of low prices, McNew said. And, as a result of the low price, farmers stand to receive a government payment of about 30 cents for each bushel of corn they harvest.
The payment will be a big help to farmers, said McNew, but, despite the big harvest, this won't be a great year for state grain growers. "Even with the government payments," he added, "farmers will be lucky to break even."
To help pay the bills, a lot of grain farmers such as Mullhausen put in a few acres of sweet corn each year and sell it retail, usually at roadside stands at the end of their lane. "We've got to do these little things to survive," said the Harford County farmer.
"The sweet corn is terrific this year," said Mullhausen. "The flavor is great. The ears are big, nearly a foot long."
If there's a problem, he said, it has to do with the same rains that produced such a lush harvest. "We need a day or so of heat, a little more sunshine so that the corn matures a bit more," Mullhausen said.
This year he is offering Incredible (yellow) and Argent (white) varieties which sell for $3 a dozen, 50 cents to $1 below the price at many roadside markets closer to Baltimore