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Crops wither in parched fields

July 20, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Boonsboro-area dairy farmer Donnie Beard started bracing for a bad year this spring when little rain fell on the already dry ground.

As it turns out, the worst was yet to come.

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Beard has watched helplessly as the sun scorched his fields and 40 percent of his hay crop died.

With nothing for his 140 cows to graze on, Beard has had to feed them from his depleted hay supply. In about two weeks, he will have to dip into his silage instead of storing it for the lean winter months, he said.

As a result, Beard will have to buy a great deal more grain for the winter than he would like.

"What makes it bad now is that the pasture is burnt up," he said. "It's drier deep down. There's no moisture in the ground at all."

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Tri-State area farmers and agriculture specialists said the extremely dry year has severely hurt farmers.

Beard said he has fared better than many dairy farmers because the Boonsboro area has gotten slightly more rain than other areas.

But the weather, combined with a severe drought two years ago and depressed milk prices, mean farmers in the region are in for a tough winter, he said.

"It will put some farmers out," Beard predicted.

Crop problems

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture's weekly crop report, Maryland's farmers are headed for trouble.

For instance, 57 percent of pastures were rated at poor or very poor quality. About one-fourth of the state's corn crop and 20 percent of the soybean crop also were in bad condition.

The figures are even worse for Washington County, where 60 percent of the corn and soybean crops were rated poor or very poor and 60 percent of pastures were rated poor, according to the state report.

"This is only a smidge past the middle of July. What's really hurting us is there is no subsoil moisture," said Don Schwartz, Washington County Agricultural Extension agent. "If this pattern continues for the next four to six weeks, our crops are literally going to die in the field."

Schwartz said infrequent precipitation since last summer meant there was no reserve of ground water to carry farmers through another dry season.

"Things are going south in a hurry," he said. "It dries out the plants and the soil very quickly."

Schwartz estimated that 75 percent to 80 percent of the county's farmers face moderate to severe drought stress.

Small grains that already have been harvested did better than expected, Schwartz said. But corn, soybeans and alfalfa are in deep trouble without solid, sustained rain, he said.

"These little showers are really feel-good showers more than actually doing anything good," he said.

Philip Wagner, an agricultural extension agent in Franklin County, Pa., said the corn crop there is going to be damaged.

"The hot weather here has already affected the total size of the crop," he said. "It's hard speculating how much."

Schwartz said quality will be poor, meaning more will have to go to silage.

"All they can do is try to salvage what is out there by selling to a neighbor or someone else that needs more silage," Wagner said.

Dennis Brechbill, who grows corn and soybeans on his Franklin County farm, said his area has received more rain in the past two weeks than other farms in the region.

"We're hurting, but we're not hurting as badly as some out there," he said.

Brechbill said he will market more of his corn as silage than as grain. He said rain between now and the end of the month could salvage his soybean crop.

"We're not at the end yet," he said.

In addition to a poor harvest, Schwartz said farmers who grow corn and soybeans will be hit with low prices because there have been bumper crops in the Midwest.

"The grain producers are facing a double whammy: A crop disaster and low prices on top of it," Schwartz said.

Those same conditions will help dairy and livestock farmers, Schwartz said. Tri-State area farms must buy grain even in good years. With low prices, at least it won't be so expensive, he said.

"That's the way it is in agriculture. There's always a segment or two really hurting, and as a result of their hurt, it helps other segments out," Wagner said.

Orchards

Area orchardists also feel the effects of the drought, although several said they are in better shape than crop farmers.

"The main concern we have right now is for the peach crop," said Henry Hogmire, an extension specialist at the Kearneysville Experiment Farm, which runs education and research programs for orchardists.

Hogmire said under normal conditions, peach trees must be picked every three days during harvest.

"The trees don't seem to be advancing," he said.

Hogmire said the trees suffered during the drought two years ago.

"I would say this one is worse," he said. "If you look at the amount of precipitation we've had since Jan. 1, the deficit is only about 2 inches. But 25 percent of that precipitation came in January."

J.D. Rinehart, who owns an apple and peach orchard in Ringgold, said the lack of rain will result in a smaller yield and smaller peaches.

Even though they will be smaller, though, Rinehart said the peaches will have the same amount of sugar.

"There are advantages to a dry year, and that's one of them. The peaches will be sweet this year," he said.

Rinehart said he can see the damage of the drought more in his 5 acres of sweet corn. The stalks are about 3 feet high when they should be about 5 feet. He said he is glad the corn accounts for a tiny part of his operation and feels for those who rely on such crops.

"They're in a much worse position than we are," he said.

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