State agriculture chief urges St. Mary's farmers to diversify crops

Miss St. Mary's County Farm Bureau 2010, Emmilee Guy, with Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, left, and county commissioners President Francis J. Russell on July 30.
Miss St. Mary's County Farm Bureau 2010, Emmilee Guy, with Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, left, and county commissioners President Francis J. Russell on July 30. (Christine Basham/the Enterprise)
By Christine Basham
The Enterprise
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Farmers must diversify their crops to protect themselves against conditions, such as this year's drought, that affect certain crops, Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Earl F. "Buddy" Hance recently told a group of St. Mary's County farmers, elected officials and community leaders in Leonardtown.

"Our grandparents had to do a little bit of everything, and we got away from that," Hance said. "But if you put all your eggs in one basket, the basket breaks."

Hance was in Leonardtown on July 30 to participate in the Savor St. Mary's Restaurant Week, which encourages people to visit local restaurants that use locally produced ingredients.

He spoke before scattered showers late last month provided some respite from the summer's drought, which has stunted crops. Talk of the drought dominated his visit.

Hance led a group of farmers and local leaders to Port of Leonardtown Winery for a tour and tasting, which provided some positive news. Winery President Caroline Baldwin said the drought has been good for grapes, increasing their sugar content, although the crop is maturing faster than usual.

But Donna Sasscer, St. Mary's County's agriculture and seafood manager, said many local farmers are filing crop insurance claims this season because of the extended drought.

"I don't have any crop," said Willy Mattingly of Mechanicsville. "This is the second year, out of four, of drought. Wherever the driest [farmland] is, that's where I'm at."

Mattingly's farm yielded 41 bushels of corn per acre in 2007, the last year he experienced an extended drought. The average corn yield for Maryland in 2009 was 145 bushels per acre, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The earlier-than-usual drought this year, coupled with an extended period of high temperatures, has left Mattingly feeling pessimistic about this year's yields.

"I don't think this is going to make 41 [bushels per acre] this year," Mattingly said.

The Calvert County office of the Maryland Farm Service Agency has been sending weekly reports to the agency's headquarters in Annapolis, assessing current crop conditions and estimates of crop loss, said Patrick Goode, the agency's Calvert County director. The agency, which is a branch of the Department of Agriculture, works with farmers, ranchers and others to ensure that the agriculture industry is increasingly environmentally beneficial and economically profitable.

"It's the first step to a disaster declaration," Goode said of the reports. "The corn crop is a loss for now, but there has been no disaster declaration for Southern Maryland."

An official disaster declaration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would generate loan assistance programs for farmers, though no overnight help, as the loans can take between a year and 18 months to reach farmers, Goode said. Farmers experiencing a severe loss therefore must rely on crop insurance until the Farm Service Agency -- in cooperation with the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the governor -- convince the USDA that dire losses have occurred.

Goode said hay, tobacco and soybeans were early enough in their growing seasons to survive the heat and drought. Leroy Russell, a grain and cattle farmer in Morganza, was less optimistic about this year's hay yield.

"The hay crop is mostly lost," Russell said.

Tommy Bowles of Bowles Farms said that the drought affects more than just farmers. A tough season for farmers raises prices for consumers, and only a major change in the weather could help.

"A thunderstorm's not the answer," Bowles said. "We need a long, slow soaking, but it's too late for the corn, anyway."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company