In some editions yesterday, a Metro article on Maryland farmers incorrectly lised Howard Henderson's affiliation. He is with the Maryland branch of the U.S. Farmers Home Administration. (Published 8/ 14/87.)
Just as last year, acres of corn husks on St. Michaels farmer Oliver Stinchcomb's land stand eight to 10 feet tall, but withered and without kernels. And like last year, Stinchcomb -- along with many of Maryland's 18,000 farmers -- stands to lose thousands of dollars because of the dry weather and scorching heat.
But unlike a year ago, as a result of new federal legislation, less than 1 percent of the state's farmers will qualify for one of the more longstanding forms of federal farm relief: low-interest government loans.
Since 1938, farmers in areas designated as disaster regions have automatically qualified for the loans. But for the first time since the loan program was initiated toward the end of the Depression, farmers who failed to purchase crop insurance before the start of the growing season will be ineligible to receive the 4.5 percent interest loans in the fall, according to Howard Henderson of the U.S. Farmers Home Administration.
In Maryland, only 134 of the 18,000 farmers purchased crop insurance before the spring deadline, said John Gartside of the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. Crop insurance, which has been available for many years and can be purchased for virtually every commercially grown product, ranges in price depending on the level of coverage and the type of crop insured.
"The farmers are going to have to learn the hard way," Gartside said. "Sometimes it takes a disaster to teach people a lesson and make them more aware."
The new regulations, which were approved in the 1985 congressional farm bill, are part of a drive to reduce the multibillion-dollar annual loss in federal disaster relief, Henderson said. The idea is that farmers who receive funds through crop insurance will need less money in loans to recoup from bad crops.
According to Gartside, the government's disaster relief program had become too costly to administer. "In 1980, there was a decision to move the government out of the disaster relief program and have farmers pay a premium to subsidize their own disaster relief program," he said. "It is an effort to save taxpayers' dollars."
Last week, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, stating that the summer hot spell had cost farmers in 15 counties more than $70 million in crops, or about 18 percent of the state's $400 million agriculture industry, requested federal emergency farm assistance. Hardest hit are feed corn and soybeans, almost half of which have been declared a total loss in some counties.
Local farmers have charged that the insurance is another cost added to already high overhead and is not worth the price.
For example, to insure a one-acre corn crop in Maryland could cost $2 to $12; farmers can recover 50 to 75 percent of the assessed value of a lost crop, depending on the type of insurance purchased.
"We never had to have it before, and the program was never really explained to us," said Robert Wilson, a farmer in Queen Anne's County who stands to lose 40 percent of his corn crop in Centreville this year on top of the 60 percent lost last year. "You'll see a lot of grain farmers selling their farms after these two years. This the worst I've seen it in my 20 years here.
"It really upsets me; we are hurting, and if someone doesn't help us out, it will only get worse," Wilson said, adding that he did not purchase insurance for his crops.
Under the new regulations to receive low-interest loans, farmers also must demonstrate that at least 30 percent of their crops have been lost, and they must indicate to federal officials how they intend to repay the loan.
Last year, even before the new regulations went into effect, only 50 Maryland farmers qualified for the loans, said Jack Matthews, national affairs director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm lobbying organization.
Nationwide, 15 percent of farmers purchased crop insurance this year, Gartside said. Maryland has one of the lowest percentages of insured farmers. In New Hampshire, no farmers purchased insurance, while in Delaware, where farmers are more accustomed to low output because of sandy, low moisture soil, 30 percent hold crop insurance policies. In Pennsylvania, about 5 percent hold insurance.
"Farmers are traditionally some of the biggest risk-takers in the country," Gartside said. "They are generally independent people, and many didn't see the need for this."
According to Henderson, "Farmers are simply not used to having to buy insurance. It's a totally new concept for them."
In Maryland, the consecutive years of drought combined with the loan restrictions are likely to force a number of local farmers out of business, especially grain farmers who cannot use the partially destroyed produce for feed purposes, Matthews said.
Last year, the economic loss statewide because of drought totaled $118 million, state officials said, but estimates for this year's loss are still unavailable. However, because of the consecutive years of drought conditions, officials are predicting a greater loss.
According to farmer Stinchcomb, who tills 2,000 acres and has no insurance, each acre of his land is yielding 10 to 12 bushels of corn this year. The normal yield is about 125 bushels per acre.
"You can take a bushel basket out at 7 a.m. to pick corn and come back at noon and the basket wouldn't be full," he said. "Last year, we didn't break even. This year, I don't know how we are even going to make ends meet.
"Nothing grows," he added. "Not even the grass in our yard grows."