Drought ravages Md. corn but spares Midwest crop

The Baltimore Sun

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its final production estimate on last year's grain harvest, which shows that nature does not treat all farms equally.

While grain farmers in Maryland suffered through their worst growing season since the drought of 2002, their colleagues in the Midwest harvested their second-best corn crop on record.

In terms of yield per acre - the best way to measure the productivity of grain fields - Maryland farms produced 103 bushels of corn from each acre planted last year, a figure nearly 28 percent lower than the harvest in 2006.

It was also the lowest corn yield since the drought of 2002, which was considered one of the worst of the century. That year, the state average was 74 bushels per acre.

The yield on many farms around the state was too low for the farmers to recover the cost of planting.

Barbara Rater, director of the USDA's Maryland agricultural statistics office, said some corn crops in the state fared so poorly that farmers didn't bother to harvest.

She said of the 540,000 acres planted in corn last year, 455,000 acres were harvested. Another 75,000 acres of corn were cut for silage and the remaining 10,000 acres were left in the field.

The struggles here contrasted sharply with experiences at farms in other parts of the country. According to the government's estimate, corn harvested for grain production was a record 13.1 billion bushels last year.

The average U.S. corn yield was estimated at 151.1 bushels per acre, the second-highest national yield on record.

The Maryland harvest of soybeans, the second-leading grain crop in the state, was also adversely affected by the lack of rain last year. Again, farmers in other parts of the country fared better than those in Maryland.

According to the USDA's final estimate, state farmers harvested an average 27 bushels of soybeans for each acre planted, down more than 20 percent from the 2006 yield of 34 bushels per acre. It was also the lowest soybean yield since the drought of 2002, when yields averaged 23 bushels per acre.

The national average was 41.2 bushels of soybeans per acre, the second-highest on record.

In September, the USDA declared every county in Maryland a disaster area because of the drought. The declaration allowed farmers to apply for low-interest loans.

Unfortunately, the federal program does little to help farmers. Because farmers must have been turned down by commercial lenders in order to qualify for a USDA loan, few of them have benefited from the plan in the past.

After the drought of 2002, the U.S. Farm Service Agency, which administers federal policy, approved five loans to Maryland farmers for a total of less than $200,000.

A state emergency loan program established last year by Gov. Martin O'Malley has proved to be more helpful to farmers who were hurt by last year's drought.

"To date, we have approved five loan applications totaling $343,000," said Stephen R. McHenry, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industrial Development Corp.

The quasi-public economic development organization, better known as MARBIDCO, administers the loan program.

McHenry said 15 applications were received by the Dec. 15 deadline..

"We are working through the rest," he said, "and we expect to approve loans totaling $1.1 million."

Under the state program, farmers do not need to be rejected by commercial lenders before applying for a low-interest loan. McHenry said the state loans are made at 5 percent. The prime rate is about 7.25 percent.

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