Everything seemed to be teetering on the edge at the Mullinix family farm in Howard County yesterday:

The soybean plants were just starting to get brown spots on their round leaves. Without rain soon, they'll go into irreversible decline.

The drought-stunted cornstalks were waiting for even a little rain and wind--the small-but-crucial boost needed to pollinate their immature ears.

Most of all, the family that planted these fields, and tens of thousands of other farmers across the mid-Atlantic region, were waiting to see whether any rain will salvage the already disastrously dry 1999 agricultural year.

"What's wrong with these weathermen? They can predict five days of heat and humidity, but they can't predict one day of rain. Even that would help!" grumbled Mark Mullinix, who farms the 450-acre spread in the Glenelg section of Howard with his brothers and father.

Mullinix leaned down and pointed to a spot at the top of his sun-reddened knee--the approximate height that the plants in the 14-acre soybean field should be reaching. Instead, they hugged the dirt like a ground cover. Over his head, the steamy aluminum-gray sky seemed to be teetering, too--swollen with the moisture it has refused to yield all summer.

The worst drought in decades, following on the heels of the last two exceedingly dry years, has the region's agriculture officials preparing to seek a federal disaster declaration for the third year in a row.

"We are putting together the information on losses. It appears they are going to be substantial," said Connie Byler-Hsu, program specialist for the Maryland Farm Service Agency in Columbia.

Stunted crops may be one of the most glaring examples of the drought's impact, but some suburban water customers are beginning to feel the heat as well. Loudoun County supervisors approved mandatory water-use restrictions yesterday, becoming the first county in the Washington area to take such a step.

As for the farmers, the Farm Service Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will convene a meeting of Maryland agriculture officials next month to review the situation. They may ask Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to formally request federal aid from the USDA. If granted, the declaration will make low-interest loans available to farmers in affected counties in Maryland and Delaware.

In Virginia, 11 local governments, including Loudoun, Warren and Shenandoah counties, have asked for federal disaster assistance, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture.

"I have never seen anything like this, this sustained drought, in the 11 years I've been here," said Harold Kanarek, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "This year is especially tough. Usually there's some rain in May to make up for the dry summer, but this past May we had hardly a drop."

One of the worst effects of the drought is on pasture land, which has been so dry and denuded that most farmers have begun using costly hay to feed livestock.

"There's no pasture left. It's shot. We're feeding like it's wintertime," said Kelly Hereth, who farms 190 acres in Howard County and runs the Farm Service Agency branch in Carroll County. "There's plenty of hay, but it's expensive, and you can only stretch that dollar so far."

Livestock producers are feeling the drought in other ways. Dairy farmers report production is off by as much as a third--cows don't produce as much milk in extremely hot weather.

Although pastures are severely affected, officials haven't yet been able to calculate losses in corn and soybean crops, which could conceivably rebound if the rains return.

Area farmers do some irrigating but keep it to a minimum, citing the high cost and the requirement that agricultural-use wells be drilled deep, to avoid drawing on their residential neighbors' water. But that leaves the farmers no less worried about the record low levels for the area's rivers, streams and public water wells.

"We're all watching it closely, we are very worried," Hereth said, noting that she long ago imposed restrictions on her household: short showers, no baths, no lawn or garden watering.

In Loudoun, the Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 1 to declare a water emergency that restricts car washing, lawn watering and other water use. The restrictions apply only to the 30,000 houses and businesses in the eastern part of the county that are served by the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority. The regulations take effect Aug. 1.

Loudoun joined several other area jurisdictions that have imposed water-use restrictions this summer, including the town of Thurmont in Frederick County, where outdoor watering was banned on Tuesday, and the town of Poolesville in Montgomery, where water restrictions went into effect July 7.

CAPTION: Mark Mullinix pulls up a soybean plant on his family's farmland in Howard County. His crop has been stunted by drought.

CAPTION: Mark Mullinix, a Howard County farmer, examines an ear of withered corn in a field filled with stunted six-foot plants that should be topping out at 12 feet. "The next week will be critical," he said of the need for rainfall.