For the second straight night, it rained on Paul Beyer's farm here, but the thunderstorms brought no smiles from the 62-year-old Beyer.
"It's too late for the corn, it's stunted," he said this afternoon, surveying his usually fertile bottom land along the banks of the meandering, brownish James River.
The record-breaking drought that is scorching the Southeast has caused tassels to sprout on corn stalks barely five feet high. Last year, the corn on Beyer's Fluvanna County farm was so high his wife, Kathryn, could barely see the top of his 14-foot-tall combine as he drove it through the fields.
Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, in seeking federal disaster relief Thursday for 17 Virginia counties, said a survey found that Fluvanna County's 300 farmers were the hardest hit in the state. The governor said that crop losses in the county east of Charlottesville would reach $2.5 million, 80 percent of their total income in a normal year.
"It's the worst I've seen in my 62 years," said Beyer, whose 400 tillable acres of farmland are divided between cash grain crops -- corn, soybeans and alfalfa -- and livestock. His farm and his plight are typical of what many of the Southeast's farmers are experiencing in what some call the worst drought in the century.
Today, as Beyer worked in 90-degree weather under a blistering sun, replacing fly-repelling tags in the ears of his herd of 120 panting black angus, he said last night's "gully-washer," a two-inch drenching from the West, and the inch of rain out of the Northwest the night before, were "virtually all we've had since April."
Beyer expects the yield on his 42 acres of corn will be about 25 percent of normal.
"Some will make an ear, but I don't know how big they'll be," he said, wiping sweat from his brow with the bill of his Ford Blazer cap.
"There's still time for the soybeans to recover," he said. The recent rains are "enough to put them in fairly good shape."
The average yield for corn in Fluvanna is 98 bushels an acre, but "he'll be doing good if he gets 10 to 20 bushels an acre in this one field," said Chet Maxey, the county agriculture extension agent, surveying a field near the James.
"It's tough on everything out here," observed Brent Whitlock, a young, Northern Virginia-bred federal agriculture agent assigned to Fluvanna County, as a deer, driven from the parched woods, scampered through an anemic field of ankle-high soybeans, seeking forage.
"I guess I could get a bucket and sprinkling can and carry water from the river," joked Beyer, surveying the cracked ground. It would be possible to irrigate his fields by pumping water from the river, he said, but "at the price of corn, we can't afford to. If we had a high-cash crop, like tobacco, it might be worthwhile."
So Beyer will do what all good farmers do, he'll adjust.
"Ordinarily I sell a lot of my hay," he said. "This year I'll keep more of it to feed the cattle."
Some neighbors who don't have that luxury are being forced to take their livestock to market early.
Beyer is participating in a federal set-aide program, which pays him for not planting 20 percent of his acreage, and he bought insurance, "which about covers the cost of planting," on his corn and soybean crops.
That is little solace for working sunup to sundown on a farm that last year -- without a drought -- didn't make a profit. "You don't like to do too much for nothing," he said.
Beyer bought his 700 acres (400 of it in timberland) 27 years ago, after "developers forced me out" of his family farm in Chester County, outside Philadelphia. He read an advertisement for Virginia land in a national farming magazine.
He works the land with a son, Paul, and a couple of hired hands, augmented in the summer by grandchildren.
Farmers learn to live with droughts, which are not uncommon -- 1963 was the worst previous one here -- but Beyer said, "We most always get one good rain in the winter or spring. But this year we didn't even have much snow."
Land near the river retained some moisture from last November's flood, but not all farmers are fortunate enough to have bottom land.
Up on the high ground, alfalfa that should be hip deep is blooming -- the sign that it is ready to harvest. It is a bare six inches tall.
The drought hasn't been a total disaster for Beyer. He has learned to hedge his annual bet with nature by having a second job: He and his son install swimming pools, and during a dry summer like this, "we've been busy," he said, managing a smile.