Tuesday night a dozen Wicomico County farmers got together for a long-planned discussion about fertilizer but instead spent most of the evening trading stories about the damage their crops suffered in Monday's 50-mile-per-hour winds.
They talked about the crushed young and tender tomato plants, the obilterated fledgling canteloupe seedlings and cucumbers, all virtually destroyed during the freak storm and cold spell.
"It was the single most severe farming day in memory," said Wallace Luffman, a Salisbury farmer who attended the meeting. "We were supposed to talk about fertilizer but there was little of that done. We talked crops."
Reluctant to place a firm price tag on the damage, state agriculture officials said only that there was a "potential of $1 million damage" done to the county crop that annually accounts for $3.75 million in vegetable and fruit sales.
Yesterday, like many other Eastern Shore farmers, Luffman went about the agonizing task of replanting his cucumber acreage. "I suffered all the damage I can take. About 85 per cent of my early vegetable crop was wiptd out Now it's almost like we're starting out all over again."
Ironically, Washington and Baltimore area shoppers eventually may benefit from the farmers' woes. Since farmers must "start over", reseeding and replanting, their new crops will come late in the season - in August rather than by July. By then in southern crops will have been harvested and there could be a vegetable glut in August, driving prices down, while July could be a scanty month in the are for fresh vegetables.
The Monday gusts had a particularly treacherous affect on the Eastern Shore. The high winds swept up the soil and slapped it across the young seedlings, creating a force not unlike sandblasting, according to Tony Evans, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department.
"Farmers are losing 40 per cent to 50 per cent of their vegetable and melon crops. The wind just disintegrated them," Evans said.
Farmers in the area may be eligible for U.S. emergency loans but only after all their crops have been harvested.
"If the farmers in the area have sustained a loss of 20 per cent of their total farming operation, then there could be a designation for emergency loans," explained Morris Monneson, state director for the U.S. Farmers Home Administration for Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey.
If a farmer is unable to finance replanting, he can apply immediately for loan assistance to insure that he doesn't lose a whole season of crops, Monneson added.
Farmers from southern New Jersey down the eastern shores of Delaware and Maryland were all hurt by the storm, but state and federal officials said they have not been able to properly assess the total damage. There are too many variables in the planting-harvesting-marketing cycle to guess how mucy money farmers will lose, the officials said. The damage was spotty, requiring a farm-by-farm appraisal.
"We'll have trouble just finding the new seedlings we need. With the freeze in Florida last winter, tomato seedlings will be hard to come by," said Luffman.
Evans confirmed Luffman's concern over seedlings: "It's a big question where the farmers are going to (be able to) buy these plants. If the supply problem aggravates the situation the damage will be severe."