O'Malley seeks U.S. drought aid

The Baltimore Sun

LA PLATA -- As Maryland's drought continues to deepen, Gov. Martin O'Malley acted yesterday to seek federal assistance for farmers facing severe crop losses.

The governor officially requested that the federal Department of Agriculture declare a disaster area in Maryland counties hurt by the drought, which has been particularly severe in Southern Maryland and the Lower Eastern Shore.

"This disaster designation, if the federal government comes through with it ... will make low-interest loans available to provide relief to our farmers so they don't lose their farms due to the loss of their crops," O'Malley said.

Some parts of the state have not seen significant rainfall in four months, and farmers are reporting crop losses of between 30 percent and 60 percent. State officials say corn crops have been hit especially hard in a year when many farmers planted extra corn to take advantage of high demand for ethanol, a grain-based alcohol that can be mixed with gasoline, reducing the need for oil.

Farmers will have to wait about a month to find out whether the government will provide the loans. Meanwhile, O'Malley said, the state will take steps to help preserve Maryland's agricultural community.

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson said the state will provide free testing of grain for aflatoxins and other toxins that can develop in corn during drought conditions -- and which can be fatal to livestock that eat the grain.

He said many farmers will "green chop" their corn -- that is, harvest it before it is mature -- to prevent further drought damage. But at that stage of its development, nitrates can be present in the grain that would be harmful to livestock. He said the state offers free tests of the grain to make sure it is safe. Farmers who want to take advantage of the service can call 410-841-2751.

State agriculture officials also said farmers who participate in Maryland's winter cover crop program will be allowed to graze their livestock in the cover crop fields or to cut and bale the crop for winter hay. These crops are planted primarily to slow rainwater runoff and reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but with the drought hurting summer grain crops, many farmers may face a deficit of feed for their animals, said Agriculture Department spokeswoman Sue duPont.

The portion of Maryland now experiencing "severe" drought conditions increased to 17 percent this week, up from 9 percent last week, according to the USDA's weekly Drought Monitor map, released yesterday.

Overall, 75 percent of the state is in moderate or severe drought. The Drought Monitor data are compiled from measurements of rainfall, soil moisture, stream flow and the condition of vegetation as tracked by satellites.

This week's drought map shows that portions of southern Washington County, southwestern Frederick County and western Montgomery County have slipped from moderate to "severe" drought conditions since last week's report.

Southern Maryland continues to experience severe drought conditions that began this month in Charles, St. Mary's and southern Calvert counties.

Moderate drought continues in a swath from eastern Allegany County to the lower Eastern Shore, including Baltimore City and southern Baltimore County.

The remaining 25 percent of the state remains "abnormally dry." That area includes far Western Maryland and the northeast corner, including northern Carroll, Baltimore and Kent counties, and all of Harford and Cecil.

Several Maryland communities, including Frederick, Mount Airy and Westminster, have announced voluntary or mandatory water use restrictions.

Rainfall at BWI Marshall Airport has been unusually scant since midApril. Since May 1, the airport has recorded a precipitation shortfall of about 6 inches. The actual deficit in many locations may be far worse. The airport experienced a localized 1.8-inch thunderstorm July 10.

Spotty showers across the region this week have done little to ease the dry conditions.

Although there are chances for showers and thunderstorms each day for the next week, the National Weather Service forecast shows no immediate prospect for sustained and restorative rains.

The tropics, which frequently provide moisture for drought relief in Maryland through the remnants of tropical storms, remain quiet.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com andrew.green@baltsun.com

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