Calvert County commissioners were sympathetic as they listened to a presentation Tuesday on the plight of drought-stricken farmers. But when it came time to put the county's money where their hearts were, they deferred to the state.

Saying they can't afford to pledge county funds for the one-time need, commissioners voted unanimously to write a letter to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) requesting $393,000 in relief grants for Calvert farmers hardest hit by the drought.

Commissioner Patrick M. Buehler (D-St. Leonard) said Calvert's low commercial tax base and dwindling "rainy day" funds ruled out the possibility of the county answering the Farm Bureau's financial aid request at Tuesday's commissioners' meeting.

"[Farmers] have a tough time trying to make a living, but until we put together a tax base, the county's going to be looking for money, not the farmers," Buehler said. "If everybody knew what was going on in the county's coffers, they wouldn't even ask for assistance."

Buddy Hance, president of the Calvert County Farm Bureau, said the board's response is what he expected.

"The economy in general is thriving right along," said Hance, who spoke on behalf of the bureau's 400 farmers. "But most people don't realize that agriculture is in a depression. Especially in Calvert County, where there's so much pressure from development."

Hance presented a proposal based on Montgomery County's response to a drought in 1997. Under Montgomery's compensation plan -- drawn up by the local Farm Bureau and county officials -- farmers could receive $20 for each acre of corn, soybeans or hay; $50 for each acre of tobacco and vegetables; and $100 for each acre used for livestock. A similar proposal now is being considered by St. Mary's County commissioners, and Charles County farmers are expected to submit a compensation plan in the coming weeks.

Hance said the $393,000 would represent a small step in encouraging the owners of small, often century-old farms in Calvert County not to trade their way of life for more secure jobs in the city.

"This [money] is probably not going to save a farm," he said. "But it would be a goodwill gesture from the county."