Crops lie withered in the fields of hundreds of farms in Maryland and Virginia, a harsh legacy of this summer's drought, which many farmers say is the worst in recent memory.
In Montgomery County, farmer Benoni Allnutt surveys his 360 acres of parched corn and soybeans and says that he has not seen anything this bad since 1933.
In St. Mary's County, agriculture agent Ed Swecker tours acres of tobacco crops where the plants are small, the leaves are thick and hard, and the irrigation ponds have run dry.
In Loudoun County, farmer Yeager Gum tries desperately to sell his cattle because there is no grass left to feed them.
"Like any of the other counties or states, we're really going to suffer," said Jim Gardner, an agriculture agent in Loudoun, the biggest corn-producing county in Virginia. "The ears are so small that a combine will consider them stalks, pull them through, and won't take the grain off the ears."
Virginia agriculture officials say farmers there will suffer losses of at least $200 million because of the drought. Maryland officials anticipated farm losses of $66.5 million early last month and say things are getting worse. Last year, bumper crops around the country depressed prices and led to farming losses estimated at $100 million in Virginia.
Both Virginia and Maryland--which together account for 1.5 percent of the nation's farm production--sent their agriculture secretaries to a meeting in Chicago last Friday with U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block and officials from half the states in the nation, seeking federal relief for their farmers.
Block promised that the federal Farmers Home Administration, which determines which counties are eligible for low-interest disaster loans, will increase its staff in order to speed the process. He said 57 Indiana counties were declared disaster areas by Friday and more applications for loans were being considered.
Farmers across the country normally benefit from cool westerly winds that keep their crops healthy during the summer months. This year, according to weather experts, those winds veered north across Canada, leaving farmers in southern, eastern and midwestern states with little rain and searing heat during the most important growing months.
Federal agriculture officials have estimated that this year's heat and drought have caused $7 billion in damage to crops. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, for instance, placed agriculture losses in his state at between $250 million and $500 million. Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey has estimated that losses there may total $125 million to $150 million.
Between July 30 and Aug. 26, most Maryland counties recorded between 30 percent and 55 percent of their normal rainfall. Northern Virginia recorded between 31 percent and 35 percent of its normal rain in July and August, while in eastern and southeastern counties, rainfall was 15 percent and 30 percent of normal.
Corn production in Virginia is expected to drop 40 percent to 60 percent, and by 30 percent and 40 percent in Maryland. The two states' other major crops, soybeans and tobacco, are faring only slightly better; in Virginia, yields are expected to fall 15 percent and 20 percent.
The effects on garden vegetables and fruits have been more varied, but will result in smaller apples and a poor white potato crop this fall, Virginia agriculture officials said. In Maryland, apple production is expected to fall from last year's 80 million pounds to 77 million this year.
On the Delmarva Peninsula, which produces about 12 percent of the country's broiler chickens, 105-degree temperatures Aug. 20 killed an estimated 350,000 birds, or about 4 percent of the peninsula's weekly production.
Crop losses now will mean higher consumer prices later, but there will be few profits for farmers who have little to sell. The USDA estimates that food prices will rise about 1 percent because of the drought.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, corn that was selling for $2.50 a bushel in May is going for more than $3.80, and soybeans have gone up from about $5 a bushel to nearly $9.
"Usually, this time of year, prices are going to go down a little," said Bruce West, of the Maryland/Delaware Crop Reporting Service. "But it's purely supply and demand."
Withered crops precipitate a dismal chain of events. Gum, 70, says his corn crops are 40 percent to 50 percent below normal, and much of what is left is undersized. With his pastures dry as well, he does not have enough to feed the 90 cattle he was preparing for market this fall.
Last week, Gum said, the Pennsylvania agents he deals with said they would not buy his cattle now because soaring grain costs made feeding them too expensive. Checking market quotations daily, Gum sees beef prices falling; his cattle are worth 4 or 5 cents a pound less than a month ago. He says he cannot do anything about it.
Joe Hottel, who has 43 farm properties in Loudoun and Fauquier counties, is caught in a different bind, one that will cost him $500,000 before the year is out, he said. Earlier this year, when good rainfall was producing a bumper crop of hay, he optimistically contracted to sell half of this summer's corn crop at what his computer told him would be a healthy profit.
Unfortunately, Hottel said, the computer "doesn't tell you when you're going to have dry weather," and now about half his corn crop is lost. Because he contracted to sell what is left at a fixed price, he will not benefit from rising corn prices.
"We had a dry summer in '77 and I got three-quarters of a crop," he said. "Eighty was a dry one and I got at least three-quarters of a crop. But this is the worst one. It's worse than anybody around here's seen. Some of the older farmers said they saw this in the '30s, but nothing like this."
Hottel, with a $500,000 farm loan, said he hopes Loudoun County will be declared a disaster area, so he can apply for the low-interest loans that could come.
But farm officials in Virginia and Maryland are not sure what relief will come. Virginia sought federal disaster relief for eight counties last month, and Maryland sought it for six--without result. Last Thursday, after Maryland Agriculture Secretary Wayne A. Cawley Jr. toured the state's farms by helicopter, he announced that he will seek disaster aid for farmers in all 23 counties.
Virginia Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Raymond Vaughan said his department has determined that 25 counties in the state are eligible for federal assistance.
"This is a natural disaster, like any hurricane, flood and fire, or anything else," Vaughan said. "You saw the responsiveness of the federal government to some of the recent hurricane areas in Texas. But you have the farmer wiped out and there's nothing in sight for them."
Jack Curry, spokesman for the Farm Land Bank in Baltimore, a cooperative bank for farmers in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, says farmers will not feel the financial effects of the drought until later this year, when they must repay money they borrowed to sow summer crops.
"Commmodity prices have been low for several years now, and they were having a tough time of it," he said. "This year the commodity prices are coming up, and there's not the commodity to sell. It's a double-edged sword."
The drought cut both ways, too, for the handful of winegrowers in Maryland and Virginia. Bret Byrd, owner of Byrd Vineyards in Western Maryland, said he expects to produce about 7,000 gallons of wine from this year's grapes, rather than the 10,000 that a normal rainfall would have brought.
"It's an advantage to me," he said. "The grapes are much smaller, but I expect the concentration of flavor and the maturity of the fruit to be higher."
Yet this may not mean higher profits, he said. The hot, dry summer of 1980 gave his winery a reputation-building champion Cabernet Sauvignon, and Byrd said he hopes for the same this year. But with the grape harvest one to two months away, he observed, September rains still could dilute his product.
Tobacco farmers, however, say that the dry weather will mean smaller crops and lower quality tobacco, although the financial effects will not be measured until next summer, when tobacco that is cut this fall will be ready for sale. Ed Swecker, an agriculture agent in St. Mary's County, Maryland's largest tobacco-producing jurisdiction, said the tobacco plants are not as full as they should be, and the leaves are hard and thick.
Many of the tobacco farms staved off disaster in June and early July by pumping water from irrigation ponds onto their fields, Swecker said. But then the ponds went dry.
"They started irrigating when they needed it" in early July, he said, "and then when they really needed it, the pond was dry."
Swecker said that 1980 had been a bad year, but "it wasn't anything like this as far as lack of rain . . . .There was an accumulation of things this year: these little rains that would come through, and you'd get a quarter of an inch of rain, then an hour after that you'd get a dry wind that would blow through, and you wouldn't be able to tell the rain had come at all."
Allnutt, who has been farming in Montgomery since the 1930s, says the same problems have hit him.
"We've had dry spells, but none with this heat and no dew," he said. During normal hot summers, Allnutt said, he has donned rubber boots to tramp into the fields in the early morning, when they were wet with dew. This summer, however, he did not have to wear boots.
The corn in his fields is stunted and yellow, and the ears are undersized. He said that he will be lucky to get 70 percent of his normal crop.
"It's almost a complete failure," he said. "It's going to be tough. I don't konw if I can even pay a man to combine the stuff."
Allnutt said that he took out a $20,000 farm loan last spring. "When will I pay it back?" he wondered. "I don't know. It kind of wakes you up in the middle of the night."