PRICE, MD., AUG. 18 -- Hot, dry skies offered Maryland's drought-stricken farmers no relief today, and federal agriculture officials were only slightly more promising.
While Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Wilmer D. Mizell told Eastern Shore farmers it was likely the federal government would approve Gov. William Donald Schaefer's request for disaster aid for 15 Maryland counties, state officials questioned how much help that would provide.
Beginning this year, the federal government said that only farmers who had federally subsidized crop insurance could become eligible for the low-interest loans that are part of the federal disaster aid. State agriculture officials said that as few as 570 of the state's 18,000 farmers had such insurance.
Mizell and other federal officials said it was not likely the government would change those requirements, as some farmers had requested.
"The U.S. government and the USDA have said we're going to get out of the disaster business," added James Richardson, the Maryland head of the department's Agricultural, Stabilization and Conservation Service. The government intends for the federally subsidized crop insurance program to cover drought and other losses, he said.
Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.), whose 1st Congressional District covers much of the state's agricultural land, invited federal officials to Queen Anne's County for a firsthand look at the drought damage. As cameras recorded the scene, Mizell and Dyson walked through cornfields that had turned the color of dried tobacco, and were later shown soybeans that had failed to produce any seed pods.
"Welcome to the Eastern Shore, again," Dyson told Mizell, noting that Maryland farmers for the second consecutive year are asking for federal disaster assistance.
Although last year's drought was more severe, Dyson said this year could be tougher for Maryland farmers politically.
Congress voted in 1986 to provide additional disaster aid, including direct grants in some cases, Dyson said. But he added it would be much harder to get such assistance this year. The cause was helped in 1986 because it was an election year, Dyson said, and because 2,600 counties throughout the country asked for aid. Only a few counties in about a half-dozen states are expected to make requests this time.
It is a banner year for farmers in the Midwest, Dyson said, "and that's not going to make it a good year for East Coast farmers" to receive special aid.
But that doesn't lessen the damage that has occurred here. In his letter asking for assistance, Schaefer said that the record heat and lack of rainfall had cost farmers in 15 counties more than $70 million in crops so far, about 18 percent of the state's $400 million agriculture industry. Last year, the damage was about $118 million.
This year's drought was much more spotty than last year's, state officials said, and hardest hit were the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland, and Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.
Pat Caulk, of the federal Farmers Home Administration, said his agency would be recommending that the Agriculture Department grant Schaefer's request for disaster aid, as well as extending the aid to three counties in Delaware. Virginia officials have said it was likely that three counties in that state would ask for aid.
But the requirement of crop insurance could mean that few farmers would receive the low-interest loans the aid would make available. Paul Gunther, the University of Maryland extension agency chief in Queen Anne's, said the insurance plan was costly and it was difficult for farmers to enroll in it.
Maryland farmers trying to recover from last year's losses found that forgoing the crop insurance was one way they could hold down their costs, Gunther said.
Mizell said that federal officials will work with the state, the farmers and local banks to try to find other ways to help. "I know there's nothing more disheartening to farmers than to plow and plant and then have nothing to harvest," Mizell said, adding that his agency "is in the business of keeping them on the farm."