Shore farmers racing the storm

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Eastern Shore farmers rushed to harvest their corn yesterday in a race with the storm that they fear will whip in today with crop-damaging winds.

Normally, many farmers would have waited longer to allow the grain time to dry in the field so it fetches the highest price. Weighing whether to take a price hit or risk Hurricane Isabel's wrath, plenty of farmers opted to bring the corn in - especially after Perdue Farms Inc. offered an inducement.

"Anywhere you go on the Shore right now, you will find combines running," Lynne Hoot, executive director for the Maryland Grain Producers Association, said yesterday morning.

Perdue, the Salisbury poultry company that purchases most of the grain grown on the Eastern Shore, promised Monday to pay more than normal for high-moisture corn. "We encouraged them to bring in their crop - the issue here is not the rain, it's the wind, because the ground's so saturated the stalks could just fly off," said Tita Cherrier, a spokeswoman for Perdue. "Obviously, they want to get it in before it just is ruined."

Mike Pennington, executive director of the Tri-County Council for the state's lower Eastern Shore, said Perdue's announcement is a relief for an area where agriculture remains the leading industry and corn a major crop.

"Some of them, I know, have been out since Sunday, soon as they got the forecast and knew there was a chance it was going to hit here," Pennington said. "They're not going to get it all in ... but they're trying to get in as much as they can."

It has been a tough year. The spring and summer rains rotted some soybean crops and forced farmers to replant. Corn, which is planted earlier than soybeans, benefited from the water and shot up - but that height is a liability now that tropical-storm force winds are expected to blow through today and tomorrow.

Hoot said grain typically finishes growing several weeks earlier on the Eastern Shore than in the Baltimore area, which means that many fields in Maryland simply cannot be harvested yet. Nearly 500,000 acres are cultivated for corn in the state, she said, and "overall, it's not a bad-looking crop - today."

"Heavy winds would really be devastating ... because it would just flatten the corn," Hoot said. "We just don't need this - I know we're not the only ones who don't need it, but Maryland agriculture has really suffered lately."

Feed corn isn't done maturing at Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City, and owner Martha Clark is taking it philosophically: "There's not a lot you can do about that."

Instead, she's working on the parts of the farm that can be storm-proofed. When Isabel hits, Clark expects to have pulled apart the hay maze and covered the bales with tarps, taken down the tent and pavilions used by her "agri-tourism" operation and moved the animals to safer quarters.

Nixon's Farm in western Howard County, which plays host to events in addition to growing crops, has no time to do anything for its 80 acres of alfalfa, clover and soybeans - the family needs to move its pricey party tents out of harm's way and secure the buildings.

"I'm hoping the damage won't be that severe," said proprietor Randall Nixon.

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