DETOUR, Md. – Pointing to the two-thirds empty corrugated steel shed where he keeps his hay, Carroll County farmer Herman Steffen said, “That should be full right now.”
Steffen, 61, grows his own feed for his nearly 700 head of cattle. But entering the harvest season, battered by one of the worst droughts in memory, he and his fellow farmers are in trouble.
Corn and hay production on his farm is down by at least 70 percent, Steffen said. And as a cattleman, he’s in an especially difficult place: “You can’t cut back on the feed to the cattle.”
David Greene, a Carroll County agricultural extension agent with 25 years’ experience, calls 1997’s crop loss “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Terry Poole, an extension agent from Frederick County, reports, “My feel for it is that we’re only going to get about 20 percent of our corn crop.”
Low yields have put farmers are in a real crunch: Their income is down and they must buy feed that, due to increased demand, has become very expensive.
Steffen’s farm “looks nice and lush now,” he said. But the verdant scenery is deceptive — the rains that returned in August haven’t penetrated the soil to help crops grow.
“Our hay supply is about one-quarter of what we need to get through the winter,” said Steffen, who’s now grazing his cattle on pastures usually reserved for winter use.
This year will be an “absolute” money loser for the farm, and buying the replacement feed is likely to deplete the family’s savings, Steffen said.
James Stonesifer, 54, owner of the 800-acre Sunset View dairy farm in Carroll County’s Union Bridge, said he expects to spend about $200,000 on feed from outside sources to keep his herd going.
Selling some of his herd for emergency income isn’t worthwhile, he said, because cattle prices are currently very low.
Buying feed that would otherwise be grown on the farm can push many farms deep into the red. Farms operate at a tight 3 to 4 percent profit margin and can’t muster the resources to meet unexpected expenses.
And Maryland’s erratic seasons, seesawing between wet years and droughts, make “it hard to get a cushion” for the tough times, Stonesifer said.
Many farmers appreciate government aid packages — low- interest loans, free cover crops — but feel they don’t go nearly far enough.
A $2 million state-financed cover crop program, offered last month, was so popular that its aid was used up in only two days, said Harold K. Kanarek, a Maryland Agriculture Department spokesman.
As Steffen put it, the program “sounds good, but it’s not going to cover all the farms that need it.”
Acknowledging farmers’ concerns, the state has asked the federal government to throw in an additional $2 million to the cover crop program, said Lewis R. Riley, state agriculture secretary.
Cover crops, planted in the same fields where drought- stunted crops have failed, serve dual interests, Riley said. Farmers can use the mature crops for feed or to sell. The state benefits because cover crops take up excess fertilizer, keeping it from running into the Chesapeake Bay.
Fertilizer runoff has been linked by many scientists to algae blooms and this summer’s Pfiesteria problem.
For future protection against the vagaries of the weather, Riley encouraged farmers to get either private or federal crop insurance.
But private insurance, with greater benefits but prices sometimes 40 times an acre than that of federal insurance, only protects so far.
Joseph C. Hottel, who farms 2000 acres in Frederick County, plans to make claims for about an 80 percent loss in corn and soy. But he said the policy only pays for the seeds and fertilizers used. All other investment — farmhand salaries, equipment expenses — is a loss, Hottel said.
And low interest loans don’t interest him. “I don’t want more debt and have to worry about it for the two or three years.” He said, “my wife and I, our goal is to farm debt free.”
Nor does inexpensive government insurance inspire much confidence. Said Stonesifer, “Federal crop insurance is like having cheap health insurance.” It’s cheap, but it doesn’t cover much.
To lessen the effects of droughts, Stonesifer plans to diversify his plantings to more resistant crops like hay or wheat.
But for many, the future is uncertain.
“It’s going to take a lot to get us back,” Poole said. Typically, about 5 percent of Frederick County farms go out of business every year, but this year, Poole predicts that number might double.
Steffen looked only a few months ahead. “I hate to see what it’s going to look like around here come Christmas,” he said. -30-