Maryland farmers, watching their carefully cultivated fields become rows of dead and withering crops, say things could be worse. They may not have had enough rainfall, but at least they had time on their side.

The record July heat wave affecting farmers in Maryland and Virginia occurred as many crops, such as cucumbers, hay, oats and barley, already had been picked or were ready for harvesting. That, and spotty showers that saved crops on some farms while those just miles away continued to suffer, have made the drought of 1987 less disastrous, so far, than the drought of 1986.

"It's certainly better than it was last year," said Anne Arundel County farmer Earl Griffiths. He walked his fields yesterday where the tobacco was half its usual height, the ears of corn smaller than normal. "If rain comes, it's still got a chance. I'm not saying that it will do better, but it's got the chance."

In Virginia, where only three counties are seeking disaster relief, crop losses have not yet been calculated, but are considered less severe than in Maryland.

Agriculture officials said yesterday that the heat spell began late enough to spare some Virginia crops. For example, 60 percent of the hay already had been cut.

As in Maryland, remaining soybean and feed corn crops could be saved if the area gets a significant rainfall, officials said. "If we don't get rain now, you'll see a statewide disaster," Virginia Farm Bureau spokesman Alex Hamilton said.

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, in asking federal authorities last week for emergency farm assistance, said the summer hot spell had cost farmers in 15 counties more than $70 million in crops, about 18 percent of the state's $400 million agriculture industry. Hardest hit are feed corn and soybeans, almost half of which have been declared a total loss in some counties.

Agriculture authorities say consumers may feel the heat in grocery stores, too, because late-harvested produce that is still in the fields, such as cantaloupe and sweet corn, has been heavily damaged by the heat.

"For people who like our good fresh produce, there's going to be less of it . . . and higher prices," said Tony Evans, coordinator of Maryland's Farm Emergency Task Force. "Anybody who likes sweet corn, I suggest they go out and scoop it up now because it's not gonna be around."

Unfortunately for the farmers, the National Weather Service was not forecasting salvation yesterday. "We're not looking at any significant departure from normal," said meteorologist Kevin McCarthy. "That means {it's going to continue to be} hazy, hot and humid."

Optimum growing conditions call for at least one inch of rainfall every two to three days, according to Maryland agriculture specialists, but most crops can survive with two inches a week.

According to the Weather Service, the summer of 1987 has been hotter, but not as dry, as last summer. Average rainfall for the Washington area from January through July, as recorded at National Airport, was 19.86 inches, two inches below normal, compared with an average rainfall during the same period last year of 14.4 inches. July's average monthly high temperature hit 92.2 degrees, 4.3 degrees above normal, while the comparable temperature last year was 87.4 degrees.

In addition to devastating crops, the heat last month killed 1 million chickens produced by Delmarva Poultry Industries Inc., a trade group that represents the East Coast's major poultry suppliers, including Perdue and Holly Farms.

As a result, wholesale prices in the region have increased about 3 cents since last month. But chickens have been in abundant supply for most of the year, and current prices are still well below last year's levels, officials said.

Giant Food spokesman Sue Challis said, "there is still sufficient supply" of poultry, a factor she said should keep prices stable.

The loss of feed crops in Maryland is not likely to have a ripple effect on the meat industry, where prices are set nationally, authorities said.

Most officials are more concerned that this summer's drought, combined with last year's, is a double whammy that threatens an already shaky livelihood. But out in the fields, yesterday, many who make their living from the land were more optimistic.

"We got two inches of rain last Wednesday and then a little shower yesterday, but the rains have been awfully spotty," said Oscar Grimes, who has six acres of tobacco and 30 acres of corn near Davidsonville, Md. "If we continue to get some moisture like we have had in the last few days, we'll be okay."

Staff writer R.H. Melton contributed to this report.