Billy Lyon led Rep. Steny H. Hoyer down a dusty path through his century-old Friendly Hall farm Wednesday morning.

The two men, trailed by a dozen other Southern Maryland farmers who showed up for the Democratic congressman's visit, strolled past the brittle corn, the dried-up strawberries, the drought-stunted tobacco and soybean plants. Hope hung on each weak raindrop that sprinkled down on Lyon's 200 acres in St. Mary's County.

But not even that late shower--which was followed by heavy rain later that day--could remedy the lost harvests in what Lyon's wife, Rose, called the worst year she's ever seen. What these farmers need, they told Hoyer, are grants. The group stopped to point out the brown, wilted cornstalks and shared stories about leaving tomatoes to rot in the fields because of another problem farmers face this summer: The market price wasn't worth the time they would spend picking them.

Hoyer, on the first stop of an all-day Southern Maryland tour, listened to their travails and pledged his support of emergency aid that could prevent small, family-owned farms in the region from going out of business. Low-interest loans are now available in 25 drought-stricken states, but are little solace to folks already deep in debt from the rough season.

The Department of Agriculture estimates total drought damage so far at $1 billion. Hoyer said he supports the Senate draft of the Agricultural Appropriations Bill. President Clinton vetoed an earlier version of the measure in part because it did not increase disaster aid for farmers. The Senate plan offers farmers who already qualify for subsidies $7 billion to increase their payments, while the House version extends no new emergency assistance. A compromise between the two is expected, Hoyer said, although no legislation is pending that includes grants. A Hoyer spokeswoman said the congressman would support grants and will urge more emergency help through his position on the Appropriations Committee.

"We need to ensure that family farmers continue to be viable," Hoyer said. "This issue involves not only land conservation, but [is] also a cultural, economic and food supply issue."

As the long-awaited rain fell harder and the congressman drove away, Billy Lyon said he hoped Hoyer's trip results in grants for him and other area farmers. One man in the group remarked that without federal aid, "For Sale" signs may start to go up, signaling the demise of small farms. Lyon wiped droplets off the brim of his cap.

"Loans won't do me any good," he said. "Cash is kind of like the rain--it helps."

CAPTION: Hoyer and Lyon walk among damaged fields of strawberries and corn. Hoyer told Southern Maryland farmers he would seek emergency grants for them.

CAPTION: Farmer Bill Lyon, left, and Rep. Steny Hoyer examine Lyon's crumbling corn during Hoyer's day-long visit to farms.