With his crops "withering away" in the hot August sun, Barry Lucey gazed out toward the corn and alfalfa fields of Pennterra Manor, his 530-acre dairy farm in north Frederick County, last week. He stooped down to feel the red soil, now parched and firm like concrete, between his fingers.
"There isn't a bushel of corn in the county to shell this fall, and we don't have enough feed to get through winter," the 45-year-old dairy farmer said with steadfast certainty. "The northern end of the county is in a complete brownout."
A blistering summer drought stretching from the Midwest to the Eastern Shore has cut corn, alfalfa and soybean yields to their lowest levels in years. Frederick County's yield has "decreased 50 to 60 percent," county extension agent Terry Poole said, and "about 20 percent of the farmers here have lost their entire summer crop."
Last week, farmers here told state and federal officials they want the county declared "a drought disaster area." Rainfall here dropped three inches below normal this summer, the Maryland State Crop Reporting Service said.
Even when the rains finally came last Thursday, stirring the waters of the Monocacy River for the first time in six weeks, it was evident it was not enough to save Lucey's thirsty crops.
To dairy farmers, a decrease in the summer crop will mean a serious shortage of feed for their dairy herds and, thus, a loss of income.
Frederick County is the largest milk producer in the state and second largest on the eastern seaboard. Its 528 dairy farms amount to a $70 million industry annually, producing the equivalent of more than 1 billion eight-ounce glasses of milk.
While the drought could not have come at a more unwelcome time, farmers here said it is only one of a myriad of problems. They said escalating operating costs, rising interest rates and a federal crop-reducing program are leading many of them toward bankruptcy, with no way out but to sell their farms.
Terry Schultz of the federal Farmers Home Administration said the agency already has seen numerous bankruptcies filed by Frederick County farmers, mostly because they had overextended their credit, and the FHA is helping 89 county farmers receive emergency credit.
Lucey, also president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau, believes that three to four months down the road "county farmers will be dropping out of the business like flies."
Lucey knows of one Frederick farmer who recently "got in over his head" to the tune of $800,000 and was forced to file for bankruptcy and lose the 600-acre family farm that had been passed from father to son for four generations.
Joseph Free of Frederick city, who owns 825 acres in various parts of the county, said he lost $40,000 this year.
"Corn is a lot like people," Free said. "When the sun's bearing down hard on you, the more thirsty you become. Well, this summer, I guess it was a case the corn just could not get enough water to survive." Free said he lost more than 50 percent of his corn and hay crop this summer after six weeks of dry, torrid temperatures that ranged near 100 degrees.
He added: "Unless the federal government steps in and gives us lower interest rates so we can buy feed, some of the smaller farms are going to have to give up."
Even Maurice C. King, who owns a modest dairy farm outside of Thurmont, wonders how he will get through the winter when the grain for his 60 head of cattle runs out. "It's a grave concern to me," he said, staring out his window at nothing in particular. "I don't want to give up my farm."
Last week, King said he wanted to take his wife out to dinner for her birthday but "regrettably" those plans had to be postponed because the family "just simply cannot afford it." And when he filled out papers for his daughter's college loan, he said he found it difficult to say he made "zero income last year."
Even Lucey believes his time on the farm is running out.
"My state of mind is turning me toward the thought that in a couple years, I may have to sell the farm, too," Lucey said. "I'm just trying to make enough money now to keep the land for my children."
Lucey's farm is at the foot of the Catoctin Mountains, 18 miles north of Frederick. He said the costs of operating his farm are "staggering: $100,000 for farm machinery--not including a $42,000 tractor--another $150,000 for the cattle.
"No one gets into dairy farming today unless they inherited the land and are born wealthy," he added.
Frederick bank officials said although farmers are meeting monthly loan payments now, there is no doubt this year's yield will adversely affect the county's economy.
"It may mean several months from now that we will have to restructure loans so farmers can meet their payments," said Nevin Baker, president of the Frederick County National Banks. "The drought is not only going to affect the farmer, but the milk co-ops, the farm equipment dealers and grain dealers as well."
Dairy farmers also are being hit by a federal 50-cent per hundred-weight milk tax. But Maryland State Farm Bureau agent Jack Mathews said that by Oct. 1, dairy farmers must pay a $1 tax for every 100 pounds of milk produced.
However, some farmers like Harry Black, who owns Catoctin Mountain Orchards, are fortunate. "Our peach and pear trees made it through the drought because we had an irrigation system sending 12 to 14 gallons of water for every tree," he said.