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Farmers find little relief in federal loans

August 05, 1997

By VANDANA SINHA

Staff Writer

Nelson Reeder surveyed the toll taken on his farm by this summer's drought - 50 acres of corn almost six feet shorter than usual, 60 acres of completely brown pasture, and barns only half full of hay.

The last thing he needs right now is a low-interest loan, Reeder said.

But such loans would be the only federal help available if Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman approves a recommendation to make 17 counties, including Washington and Frederick, eligible for disaster relief.

"I'm sure you'll have a lot of people jumping on that, but I don't think I will," said Reeder, a dairy farmer in Boonsboro, one of Washington County's most severely affected areas.

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"You're still carrying that debt load. A lower interest rate just takes longer to pay the money back," said Donnie Beard, another Boonsboro dairy farmer who said he wouldn't accept a government loan.

Beard said this year he expects a nearly 80 percent loss in shelled corn and about 20 percent loss in silage corn for animal feed.

The state emergency board's damage assessment report estimated a 60 percent loss in Washington County's corn and soybean yields, 38 percent loss in hay, 50 percent loss in pasture and 90 percent loss in non-irrigated vegetable crops this year.

"The loans may not be sufficient, but it's all we have to offer at this point," said Jim Voss, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Columbia, Md., and chairman of the USDA state emergency board.

Federal officials must first assess the farmer's principal crop value and extent of damage before offering financial aid, he said.

The loans, offered at 3.75 percent interest, have a lifetime cap of $500,000 per farmer, so those paying off similar federal loans from past drought-related losses may be ineligible for aid this year, said Colleen Cashell, county executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency.

Cashell said the loans are not enough for some farmers who will be driven out of business by a drought many consider to be the worst since 1966.

"There are some farmers who are still paying off accumulated loans from several years ago. Now they can look forward to paying that money off again. No, farmers aren't too excited about these loans," said Don Schwartz, Washington County agricultural extension agent.

Farmers struggling to feed their livestock said they would benefit more by the federal Emergency Feed Program, abolished in 1996, in which the federal government paid for 50 percent of animal feed.

Gerald Ditto, president of the Washington County Farm Bureau, said he plans to ask U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., to encourage Congress to revitalize the program in Western Maryland.

"We're exploring whether it could be reinstated or instituted on an emergency basis," said Lisa Wright, Bartlett's spokeswoman.

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