Farmers who eight weeks ago were praying for spring downpours to stop so they could plant are now back to praying for rain.
Near the farming community of Georgetown, Del., this week farmers were so rain hungry they phoned the local radio station for updated reports when they heard static on the radio, asking hopefully, "Are you having thunderstorms up there?"
Except for localized, scattered thunderstorms Tuesday and today it has not rained for two weeks in most areas of Maryland and Virginia, drying out the surface soil and endangering the feed corn crop in both states.
The dry spell wouldn't be quite so bad if it hadn't been accompanied by a wilting heat wave. "Drought would be a severe word right now," said Tony Evans of the Maryland Agriculture Department, "but we are dry and we need some rain. The last two weeks have been extraordinarily dry and hot. We are stressing the plants and we need relief."
The principal peril if no rain develops soon is to feed corn, the largest area field crop. There are about 600,000 acres of it planted in Maryland, and a healthy crop this summer could be worth up to $120 million. Soybeans, tobacco, garden vegetables and other crops have not been seriously affected, Evans said.
But the dry spell strikes at a critical time in corn production, when pollination should be occurring, he said. The waist-high corn plants are "making ears" and need dampness for pollination to succeed.
Without proper pollination the ears grow but production of kernels is stunted. Steve Walsh at Lippy Brothers Farms in Carroll County, with 5,000 acres in corn, said every day without rain is costing the farm about five bushels of grain in yield per acre. In a good year, he said, cornfields produce about 100 bushels of grain per acre.
Walsh said Lippy Farms' snap bean production also is being damaged as beans dry on the vine.
Said corn farmer Allie Messer of Queen Anne's County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, "We're suffering pretty bad. Corn has to have rain in July and August."
Messer said leaves on his corn plants are beginning to curl in the steaming afternoon heat. "I was told that when it rolls up, it's not necessarily hurting the plant," he said. "I said, 'Maybe not, but it hurts me.'
"My corn has been rolling and curling up for a week or 10 days and the bottom of the leaves are beginning to fire. I don't know of any fields up here that are a failure yet, but I've heard that some in other areas south of here are."
Clarence Dunkerly of Virginia's crop reporting service said crops in the state generally are good but corn is declining, while local county extension agents in James City told United Press International that about half the county's corn crop will be lost because of dry weather.
The odd thing about this dry spell is that it comes hard on the heels of one of the wettest springs in recent history, with most areas still reporting an overall surplus in rainfall from March 1 to July 15, despite current arid conditions.
But in all areas surface soil is suffering, Evans said. "What we need," he said, "is not a lot of rain but timely rain to bring up moisture on the surface, which is extremely dry, and on the subsurface, which is beginning to be stressed."