Fauquier County dairy farmer Sam Butler has spent July watching his 500 acres of stunted corn stalks shrivel and collapse under 90-plus degrees.
"It's hurting something bad," said Butler, 47, of the summer-long drought that agriculture officials say has all but wiped out the corn crop in Northern Virginia and caused severe damage in Maryland.
"Early corn is down about 50 percent," said Richard C. Beck, agriculture extenstion agent for Stafford County. "The late corn is a total disaster. I don't think we can even count it."
Butler, who said he will not harvest a single ear of corn this year, will salvage one fourth of the corn stalks to feed livestock during the winter months. In an average year Butler's land would yield 100 bushels of corn per acre.
The drought, which followed a particularly wet spring, has affected crops from Iowa and Kansas to the Eastern Seaboard, said Norton D. Strommen, a meteorologist with the United States Department of Agriculture. He said this year's drought is worse than three years ago because the wet spring forced farmers to plant their corn late in the season.
"Late planting means the corn should pollinate the last weeks of July," he said. "But with this hot, dry spell the corn didn't pollinate. The silks simply dried up."
Under optimum conditions, corn should receive 1 1/2 inches of rain a week. Strommen said the area received only two inches of rain in July and that was all at the beginning of the month.
"It's simply been the worst of all worlds this year," he said.
As the dry spell continues, area soybean and tobacco crops are also threatened, area agricultural specialists said. "There's still hope for soy," said W.C. Brown, agriculture extension agent for Fauquier. "The soy is there but stunted. If we get rain in the next couple of weeks the pods should develop."
USDA meterologists predict near-average rainfall this August for the Eastern Seaboard and above-normal temperatures. But it will be too little too late for most corn crops, he said.
Local agriculture extension agents say the 1980 drought cut the area's corn harvest almost in half. That year, area farmers produced 62 bushels of corn per acre compared with a normal yield of 109 bushels an acre, said Brown. He and other Virginia extension agents predict this year's yield will be lower than 1980.
Maryland agriculture officials estimate their corn production will be cut by 20 to 30 percent this year.
"Production is off but a lot of areas in the Eastern Shore are irrigated because of the ample ground water," said Douglas W. Tregoning, extension agent for Montgomery County. Northern Virginia agriculture agents said most of Virginia is too hilly for irrigation.
Strommen said there was a nation-wide record yield of 112 bushels of corn per acre last year, much of which was stored away. "We're going into this with record reserves," he said. "We've got corn in silos and storage bins across the country. Enough to meet our commitments for sales overseas, at home and livestock."
For Butler, though, the drought means he will have to buy two to three tons of grain a day at $200 a ton to feed his 700 dairy cows this winter.
Southside Virginia tobacco farmers set up to participate in a pilot broccoli program need more rain if the fledgling crop is to be a success, a horticulturist said yesterday.
About 100 acres of broccoli are to be planted by mid-August in an effort to increase the profitability and diversification of farmers who have traditionally relied on tobacco as a cash crop. But the recent drought has made the earth dry and tough to cultivate, said Charlie O'Dell, a Virginia Tech extension service horticulturist.
The crop will be in serious danger if there is insufficient rainfall by the third week of August, said O'Dell, who has been working with broccoli for five years.
Traditionally associated with California and other warm-weather states, broccoli is being tested in Southside because it neatly fits in with tobacco operations.
The growing period of the green vegetable takes place after tobacco, and farmers set up to grow tobacco usually have the tilling and irrigation equipment suitable for broccoli, O'Dell said.
Additionally, the "football weather" of Southside Virginia--warm fall days and cool nights--is conducive to broccoli growth. CAPTION: Picture, Bobby and Sam Butler in family's drought-stricken corn fields at Bealeton, Va. The Butlers estimate they will lose about $100,000 this year. By Lucian Perkins--The Washington Post