As a farmer, Phyllis Horsmon knows that she has to be forgiving of the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Comes with the territory, she said this week.

Still, it hurt when the recent dry spell claimed several of her chrysanthemums and forced her to replant fields of tobacco that had died in the heat.

Dry grass covers her farm in Calvert County, and the water in her two ponds is down by at least a foot. Worse, the dry wave arrived just as she had begun planting.

"It's kind of like the song, `One Step Forward and Two Steps Back,' " Horsmon said. "You just do what you can and hope for rain."

But rainfall has been short and sporadic, leaving area farmers with a grim outlook for this year's crops. Monday's showers, they lamented, barely settled the dust.

While weather experts debate the fine points of whether this a drought, local farmers say that's just a technicality.

Rainfall is down by 30 to 40 inches across the state, according to Maryland Farm Services. That forces some farmers to make tough choices.

"We've decided we're probably not going to plant," said Allen Swann, 54, referring to the couple of hundred acres of soybeans he usually harvests in Calvert County. "We'll go ahead and pay rent, and then we'll know how much we're losing. It's just that kind of year."

The next two weeks will be crucial in determining the success of area crops, agreed farmers and the government's weather forecasters.

For the past two summers, a wet winter and spring helped soften the impact of dry summers, said Harold Kanarek of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. But this year, May dipped one to three inches below average rainfall statewide, putting the water table in jeopardy.

Kanarek said the problem comes in the timing and quality of showers, not in the measuring of inches.

"I hesitate to say this is going to be a disaster," he said. "There's still some hope for today."

On his land in La Plata, Davis Lines, 53, grows more than 100 varieties of flowers for wholesale distribution, and he leases plots to two other growers. All three have seen the near-drought conditions wither their crops.

One man planted corn but applied a rain-activated herbicide. When stalks finally came up, Lines said, there was more grass than corn. The other man didn't even bother cutting the hay he grows on the farm -- it was too thin.

And Lines said the heat has allowed thrips, tiny bugs that dwell inside flowers, to flourish on his plants. He is also irrigating 24 hours a day, a costly practice that is necessary to keep his flowers alive.

"Please send rain," Lines implored Mother Nature on Tuesday. "Just don't send it all at once. An inch a week throughout growing season would be fine."