After receiving their first good rainfall in three months, farmers in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore are scurrying to plant soybeans and are hoping for more rain to keep crops growing.
Agricultural agents said today that even with last week's welcome wet weather, three months of regular rainfall is still needed if crops of soy, corn and tobacco are to emerge unscathed from the driest spring on record.
The scattered thunderstorms that passed through the region late last week brought enough water to give many farmers only a brief reprieve.
Soy planting normally begins in May and finishes by the end of June. But farmers this year have delayed planting because the soil is so hard and dry that seeds would not germinate and herbicides would be ineffective, agricultural experts said.
"In Dorchester County, we got anything from over one inch to nothing, so it was very, very scattered," said Betsy Gallagher, an agriculture extension service agent in Cambridge. "An inch was very helpful, but we're going to need a lot more timely rains to help make up the difference." Plants are young enough, she said, that "there's still plenty of time left in the season to make it up."
Soybeans and corn are the main crops on Maryland's Eastern Shore and, along with tobacco, in Prince George's County and other areas of Southern Maryland. Virtually all of the area's soybeans are used to feed chickens raised on the Eastern Shore. The corn has a variety of uses, and most of the tobacco is exported to Europe.
In Kent County, extention agent Jim Milliken said rain one night last week covered the county. "It was a really nice rain, and it came at a very critical time," he said. "A lot of the growers had stopped planting soybeans, the ground was so hard and dry. So we're seeing a lot of soybeans being planted right now." He said farmers have been coping with the drought, "but they've been worried."
Farmers in Prince George's also have been feeling the drought and have delayed soybean planting. Most of last week's rain fell in the northern areas of the county, which are less heavily farmed than the southern portion, where no rainfall was recorded.
Farmers in the county are reporting that leaves on young corn stalks, which are now about knee-high, are starting to dry and roll up, according to Prince George's extention agent David Conrad. Even if rain comes soon, he said, the corn will probably be damaged by weeds that survive drought conditions better than most crops do.
"You need moisture to start the germination process in the seeds," said Conrad. "The ground is so dry, you put the seeds in the ground and they don't sprout. Then the weeds come in without herbicide control. That's two strikes against you right off the bat.
"We have a lot of weedy fields out there," he said. "These weeds are competing, and will compete even if we get rain, for the water that would be in the ground, and for the fertilizer. There will be some reduction in yield. What that's going to be is just a big wild guess right now."
This is also the time of year when tobacco farmers move their plants from nurseries into fields. Unless rain comes soon, Conrad said, "it will be hard for the plants to survive transplanting shock."
But it is still early enough in the season, he said, that the damage can be undone. "If it would start raining this afternoon and put down four inches in June, July and August," he said, "you'd forget all about what happened this spring, probably."