Farmers are on the edge

August 02, 1999

Parris GlendeningBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Jefferson County, W.Va., farmer Terry Dunn on Monday gave local and national politicians a first-hand look at the devastation wrought by what some have described as the worst drought in the Tri-State area since 1929.

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Walking through fields of stunted corn on Dunn's farm near Charles Town, W.Va., U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman pledged the government would do everything possible to cushion the blow.

"We can't make it rain, though," said U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who was dressed in a flannel shirt and a straw hat.


The 122-acre Dunn farm was the first in a two-stop tour Glickman made of drought-stricken farms in West Virginia and Maryland. He announced low-cost loans for farmers in West Virginia and adjacent counties of other states.

Glickman said 98 percent of West Virginia's farmers run small to mid-size operations.

"This state has been a heartland of small, medium-sized farms," he said. "You haven't really seen the large consolidation of farming here."

Glickman said the region also has not often experienced the kinds of prolonged drought conditions it has faced in the last three years.

For Dunn, this summer has been a disaster. Even if rain comes, it will be too late to save his crop. He said he is facing a total loss of his sweet corn crop.

"It's not even worth running the combine through it," said Dunn's wife, Frances Dunn.

Terry Dunn, 46, said he is in the process of seeking crop insurance. He said the only likely use of his crops will be to turn his cattle loose and let them forage.

Dunn said he began feeding his winter hay to his livestock in May because the pastures have been barren.

Dunn said he will survive, but just barely.

"I'll scrape by. But there's nothing extra for emergencies," he said. "This is absolutely the worst I've ever seen This is a farmer's worst nightmare."

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., said farmers probably work harder than anyone else on the planet.

"It never stops. It just never stops," he said. "The one thing you have to have on your side is the weather. And right now, we don't."

Glickman saw more of the same later in the day when he joined Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., at Vaughn Harshman's Frederick County, Md., farm.

"Farmers are going to be doing a lot of thinking this winter. Right now, I have no idea whether I'll be farming next year," said Harshman, surveying a field of scorched soybeans. "It looks bleak at best right now."

At a news conference in front of Harshman's house, Glickman provided a visual illustration of the toll that the heat and drought have taken. He spoke in front of a pot that contained a drought-stricken soybean plant next to a normal-sized plant about three times bigger.

"This thing will turn. I'm convinced of it," he said.

Even if it does, though, farmers will have to contend with falling prices.

Harshman said he would not be able to survive if his wife did not work another job off of the farm.

Richard Burns, who farms about 2,000 acres in Jefferson County, W.Va., with his brother, said prices for grain are stuck at levels from 30 years ago.

"My father got about as much for his produce as I'm getting today," said he said. "We can fight a drought We cannot do this. Farmers have had enough."

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