Hay is usually so abundant at Bob and Sarah Potts' Loudoun County dairy farm that they can feed their milk herd all winter and have enough left over to sell to neighboring horse farms for extra cash.
Not this year. The record spring drought in the Washington area dried out the grazing pasture at the Potts' 180-acre Dogwood Farm near Purcellville. The hay yield is stingy, the field corn is withered, and the Potts are raiding their cold-weather feed supply now to get their 80 cattle through the summer.
"It's as bad or possibly worse as I've seen since I started farming in the late '50s," said Bob Potts, 53. "You work all your life, and you see things drying up and disappearing. It works on you."
For some farmers in Virginia and Maryland, the driest spring in more than a century combined with low crop prices is reaching a crisis stage, forcing them thousands of dollars into debt. Officials in some Virginia counties are considering asking Gov. Gerald L. Baliles to declare their striken farmlands disaster areas. Most areas have received only a fraction of an inch of rain this month.
Many farmers, including Henry Stowers of Leesburg, said they may have to sell their beef cattle early because they are running out of feed.
Farmers and agricultural agents from Accomack County on Virginia's end of the Delmarva Peninsula to Maryland's rapidly urbanizing Howard County say the spring drought is delaying plantings and shriveling crops.
The next two weeks will be critical for area farmers, said Jim Belote, the cooperative extension agent in Accomack County, where agriculture is the primary employer. In Accomack, which is climatically a week or two ahead of other Virginia counties and three weeks ahead of those in Maryland, the potato harvest has just begun. Corn is within a week of tasseling, a crucial stage when the crops require drenching rains to grow to normal size.
"Potatoes are about the size of golf balls," said Belote. "Normally we have soybeans waist high and corn up to your shoulders. You see no soybeans planted. The corn is knee high."
Maryland farmers apparently are slightly better off this year than their Virginia counterparts. But in Maryland's Talbot County, corn is the No. 1 crop and it "is on the verge of disaster," said Harry Ziegler, director of the federal Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service's county office. Many farmers have postponed planting soybeans because of the dry weather, he said.
"I'm sure there will be bankruptcies and forced farm sales," Ziegler said.
Only 0.84 of an inch of rain has fallen in the Washington area during June, including Friday's 0.29 of an inch, according to National Weather Service forecaster Scott Prosise. Normal June rainfall is 2.22 inches. Only 10.18 inches of rain have fallen on Washington so far this year, compared with the normal 17.47 inches.
In suburbs and cities, the dry spell is straining water supplies and treatment systems. Anne Arundel County this month banned outdoor water use from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. weekdays. Fairfax County have asked residents to restrict weekend lawn-watering. Officials in the Tidewater Virginia cities of Portsmouth, Suffolk, Chesapeake and Newport News also have asked for voluntary restrictions.
But for farmers, the drought could spell disaster. S. Mason Carbaugh, Virginia's agriculture commissioner, told the Associated Press that crop and pasture lands in northern, central and southeastern Virginia are seriously dry. Corn, soybeans, peanuts and tobacco, the primary summer crops, are all showing stress, he said.
Howard County farmer Pat Langenfelder, who has an 1,100-acre spread near Clarksville, Md., said not only that field crops are doing poorly, but also that her children's two acres of sweet corn look "wretched" and will not produce enough of a crop to justify a roadside stand. "It's going to hurt the supply of it," she said.
Even farmers who have irrigation systems are frustrated by the drought because the water pumped from overhead tracks evaporates quickly in the dry, windy air, said Wayne Shaff, the agricultural extension agent in Maryland's Wicomico County, where 7,000 acres are planted in vegetables and melons.