Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 34

August 22-29, 2002

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Crop Failure

Figure on the worst,
Hope for the best.
For a farmer, it’s the only
Way he can stay on the farm.
— Long-standing Farmers’ Creed

Floods are fast and devastating. Equally devastating — though at first in miserly increments — is drought. But once the soil has been parched long enough, the sad consequences quickly become evident.

I thought of this the other day while returning home from a highly successful fishing trip for rock and blues at the southern tip of St. Marys County, which is about as far south as one can get in Maryland.

A full chest of filets of blues, rockfish and Spanish mackerel were iced down in the trunk of Jon Boughey’s auto on the old Wynne road at the end of which is Scheible’s Fishing Center. Seven of us had fished a full day, and our harvest from the waters of the Chesapeake had been, well, let’s say spectacular.

But, once on the road and heading north, the exhilaration faded. It was depressingly obvious that for many others there would be no harvest this year. Our ‘crop’ was in the wet waters of the Bay; their crop failures were in soil that in some instances wasn’t more than a long cast from billions of gallons of H20. But, sadly, never the twain did meet.

There were long rows of stunted corn, some stalks no higher than three feet, all of it as brown as the lighter shade of a toadfish. In fields like that, not an ear — no, make that not a single kernel — of corn will go to market in 2002.

Hope Dries Up
Being of New England dirt-farm stock in the days of the Great Depression, I appreciated the gloom and doom within the hearts and souls of those who had toiled long hours and probably borrowed from the bank to plow, plant and nurture what became long brown and dry rows of corn.

In the spring, there was rain, and those cornstalks were a lively green, and there were high hopes for a good year among the farmers who tended the soil. Farmers, like fishermen, have to be optimistic. Why else would either pursue their trade?

Drought comes slowly even in years like this. The rains of spring give crops a good start. But, once summer comes, in bad years the skies no longer open. Growth slows, and soil beneath the surface becomes as dry as that on the top.

Not fertilizer or other additives, cultivation nor anything else helps — except water. Plain old water, the kind we get all we want of by turning the spigot in the kitchen or bathroom. Without it, the crops — so robust in late spring and early summer — consume all their energy, then turn brown and drier than a leaf of tobacco ready to be converted into a blend to fill the bowl of a pipe.

We can turn a faucet even in this dismal year of 2002 and get all the water we want. Some even squander it on the grass of their lawns or to hose down their SUVs. But for many farmers, there is no spigot. For those who can’t afford — or haven’t the water source for — irrigation, there is only one hope. And they look to the cloudless skies.

On television or in the daily press, they witness the floods in Germany and wish for only a fragment of all that water in their fields. But it would have to be retroactive. It’s too late now. As with human and animal life, so with crops. Once dead, always dead. Nothing will bring the green back into the corn, soybeans and vegetables.

I Remember It Well
I recall such a picture vividly. Back in the ’30s, crops on Grandma’s farm were drying up, and she fretted about the relentless drought endured across most of the nation as she stayed up late candling eggs to determine fertility, weighing those to go to market — all the time worrying how there would be enough money to try planting again the next spring.

It was different back then. Banks weren’t as cooperative with farmers as they are today. But in the first place, widowed Grandma, like so many independent Yankees, wouldn’t have considered borrowing. It would be too embarrassing to ask for a loan.

The government was broke, so there wasn’t much if any state or federal assistance. And there were taxes to be paid, and the chickens, cows and the horse had to be fed at a time when many people didn’t have enough money to pay a profitable price for eggs, milk, cottage cheese, butter and what little produce came from the drying fields.

Battling Windmills
Other than the lack of moisture in the tilled lands of today, things are much different for farmers — yet in other ways so much the same. The farmer is at the base of the pyramid, and it’s at the bottom where one feels the weight of the world.

Across this nation, the farmer is the scapegoat. We live in a country where the bottom line is an abundance of food for the citizenry — and at the lowest price possible. The government has a heavy hand in setting prices, planning crop quotas, handling farm exports. All that’s left to the farmer is the worrying, the borrowing and the work.

The work? I wonder, does it ever occur to consumers that farmers rarely if ever figure into their balance sheets how much their hourly or weekly compensation is for long hours of hard work, often under a hot sun.

To this day, few farmers give their actual labor any financial consideration; the goal is to make enough on crops one year to make possible tilling the soil the next. Farming is their way of life, and thankfully many are satisfied if they make enough to live, pay taxes on the farm and cover their mortgage, seed, fertilizer, machinery and crop insurance payments — and pay off their loans sufficiently that banks will lend more for next year when it starts all over again.

Crop insurance doesn’t kick in until the harvest is so bad that the policy usually won’t pay much more than the expenses, if that. For the actual labor, there’s no compensation. How would we like to work 50 or more hours a week from spring well into fall for zilch in compensation? If you know the answer, it’s not a question.

When crops go bad enough for federal disaster relief, the rewards are often only low-interest loans — more borrowing that has to be repaid in a questionable future.

Most farmers fortunate enough to have irrigation worry whether the wells will hold up long enough to energize the crops to harvest, or whether the ponds will go dry, as many already have.

In years of drought, many who raise cattle are already feeding hay that was harvested for use in winter — which means when winter comes, they will be forced to buy feed, which means more borrowing.

One Eastern Shore farmer suggested he’d be better off in taking all his available equity, going to Las Vegas and playing blackjack. He’d have the same chance of winning, and with less labor involved. But deep down, most farmers wouldn’t have it any other way; ties to the soil are as deep as those of a waterman to the Bay. Literally, it is a way of life, and every so often comes a bountiful harvest and it all seems worthwhile.

In between, it’s borrowing, borrowing, borrowing, digging a deeper and deeper hole while figuring on the worst, hoping for the best —in order to keep putting food on our tables.

Give that a little thought on your way to the ocean and its warm salty water as you pass fields of brown stunted corn and soybeans. It’s no wonder why those farmhouses and barns need coats of paint, or why dilapidated equipment in the fields isn’t replaced. Be thankful that farmers are still willing to do battle with windmills. Enough said …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly