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Nearly 70 farmers apply for state aid

September 15, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

The 1999 drought prompted nearly 70 Washington County farmers to apply for state aid to plant fall grain crops this year, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

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The $3 million statewide drought emergency program, initiated by Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, reimburses farmers for planting cover crops and provides livestock feed.

The use of fertilizer is restricted under the program to limit the amount of runoff.

The cover crop program won't turn things around for farmers whose drought-related losses are about $100 million statewide, but it will help, said Washington County Agricultural Extension Agent Donald Schwartz.

"It shows a good-faith effort and interest that the state is concerned about its agricultural industry," he said.

Cover crops absorb surplus nutrients and hold soil in place to reduce erosion over the fall and winter, and are used by livestock farmers for forage and silage and winter grazing, Schwartz said.

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The drought has depleted feed stocks in Washington County by about 50 percent, he said.

The state initiative, unlike federal emergency loan programs, involves direct grants.

Washington County has been declared a federal drought disaster area seven times in the last 16 years, according to Colleen Cashell, county executive director for the Farm Service Agency.

The designation enables farmers to apply for low-interest emergency loans.

Some area farmers have said the federal loans only deepen their debt loads.

Ralph Hamby, who has a farm on Kemps Mill Road, said he has long avoided federal emergency loan programs for that reason, but said he has taken advantage of state ground cover programs in the past to help pay for feed.

Hamby applied this year, but is having second thoughts, he said.

"It's not to help farmers hurt by the drought," said Hamby, 39. "They're not concerned about production, but nitrate levels and erosion. If it was about production, they wouldn't restrict our fertility needs."

Despite the drawbacks, Hamby said he applied because the drought stunted his corn and soybean crops. He exhausted his winter hay supply to feed his cows through the summer, and has no hay left to sell, he said.

"It's cut a huge hole in our income," Hamby said.

Despite 3.01 inches of rainfall this month, Washington County is more than 10 inches below normal annual rainfall levels, according to the National Weather Service.

Funds from the drought emergency program will offset the cost of feed and fuel to plant cover crops, and will enable recipients to graze livestock on the fields or cut and bale the crops for winter hay, the Department of Agriculture said.

Schwartz said the average cost of planting cover crops for a 50-acre farm is about $4,000. The state aid reimburses farmers for about 15 percent, or $600, of that cost, he said.

Financial assistance is still available for farmers who have critical need for water or hay for their livestock this fall and winter. Applications are being accepted through the local USDA Farm Service Agency office.

Interested farmers can call 1-800-638-2207 for more information.

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