Burton on the Bay:
Take A Dip ­ In Dust

O farmers, pray that your summers be wet and your winters clear.

	-Virgil, 70-19 B.C.


At present, winter is of no concern to farmers. This is summer - and it's a hell of a summer, what with temperatures akin to what one would expect down there where the devil holds court. Also, it's a hell of a summer for crops that feed us and for the farmer who desperately needs the money to keep in business.

When I read in the Sun this morning about some Ellicott City woman blathering about the delay in getting her backyard pool completed by next month and the possibility of paying hundreds of dollars more to get it done, I wonder about people, their priorities and, yes, let's use the S word: Selfishness.

Here we're in the midst of a drought, the worst since the Great Depression if not the century, and this lady appears more concerned about the big hole in the yard that will one day be a pool for fun and frolic. Sorry, ma'am, I'm not tuned in.

All those tears shed by those with pools and those whose pools aren't finished and filled yet would irrigate several thousand acres of corn and vegetable fields. Too bad we can't divert those droplets to where they would do the most good.


Dried Fields and Streams

Tough luck is what the farmers are enduring, big-time tough luck. We'll be sharing in it before long as produce prices soar because of poor production. The consequences of the drought go far beyond the soil tilled by people of agriculture or the grass and shrubbery on lawns.

In freshwaters, the situation has gone beyond an impact on the catching. Some fish could be in trouble, especially at the Gunpowder, which in recent years has been ranked one of the great trout streams across the nation. But the native trout thereabouts need cool water. When the wet stuff gets above 75 degrees, trout are in trouble - and waters of the Gunpowder depend on flow from Loch Raven Reservoir, already significantly stressed, and Liberty and Prettyboy Reservoirs, which flow into Loch Raven.

At Liberty, the water level is down about 25 feet; Prettyboy, 18 feet; Loch Raven, five feet. As water levels drop at the latter, though fed by the others, there's less cold water available to dump into the Gunpowder. As for other waters, let's not forget that the lower water gets when air temperatures are blazing, the more the stress on all aquatic life. And some people are griping about their backyard pools.

In the Chesapeake, waters are lukewarm, which isn't good. Add to that reduced water flow from major tributaries such as the Potomac, Patuxent, Choptank and Susquehanna - already less than half of normal flow, so low it can't be used under current guidelines as a backup for the Baltimore system, which incidentally goes beyond the city to include parts of Anne Arundel County.

Odd things are happening in the Bay. Less freshwater input from tributaries means, of course, higher salinity, and the Bay currently is almost salty enough that it could float an anvil. And people are worried about their pools, the dust on their cars or the brown where the green should be on their lawns - which, incidentally, will turn green quickly when water finally comes. Lawn grass is incredibly resilient.

The drought, we're told, is probably the worst since the early 1930s - and could be even worse unless the skies open up and dump an awful lot of water on parched land. Already, it's as bad if not worse here in Maryland as it was in 1966, which I recall wasn't aggravated appreciably by the demand of so many backyard pools.

That year, banned was watering grass and shrubbery, washing cars and filling pools - and the citizenry took the situation seriously. Many farmers barely survived.


Dust Bowl Days

But when I think of drought, I picture life on the New England farm in the early '30s when drought prevailed for several years. It was even worse in the Midwest, where farmers went bankrupt wholesale. Even the crops farmers managed to harvest didn't help much because in the Great Depression people didn't have money to buy the fruits and vegetables.

Banks got to own an awful lot of farms. Foreclosure wasn't in the cards for the Burton homestead, though I still can't figure how we survived back in the days when state and federal governments didn't offer much more than advice.

Farms were small, and small farmers couldn't afford irrigation systems. We set priorities on crops that would feed us and bring in enough cash to pay the mortgage and feed the horse, cows and chickens. The well that supplied the house wasn't any help. It almost went dry, barely providing enough of the wet stuff for cooking and drinking.

Big milk jugs were loaded into Uncle Jack's old Jewett touring car, which headed for a pond where water was scooped into them, then carted back to be dumped on priority crops early and late in the day when the hot sun didn't dry the soil before some of the moisture could get to dry roots.

It was an all-night job, day after day, no Sundays off. Every day, after loading the milk jugs with water, we'd jump into the pond to bathe: not enough water back at the farm for that. Used dishwater was dumped onto Grandma's favorite flowers and shrubs. Every drop was utilized.

One year, 1931, I believe, we managed to pull off a carrot crop - but it turned out not to be a cash crop. My grandmother Clara Burton was a tough woman burdened with the fight to save the farm, my grandfather had terminal cancer - and that was long before Blue Cross and HMOs - and radiation treatments in Boston cost $100 a crack.

The carrots were sent to market, and the money was, as Grandma said "already spent." When I brought her a letter from the mailbox far down the road, I'll never forget her reaction. She cried.

The produce dealer wrote the carrots didn't sell. No market, so they were dumped in the river. But the market man added he knew how tough times were, so he wouldn't charge for the dumping.


Not Much Better Nowadays

That's a practice still going on, and here in Maryland. I talked with Kent County farmer Floyd Price who had the same thing happen with cantaloupes the other day. He worries about the same for beans and cabbage. It costs more to pick, box and transport such vegetables than the price he gets.

The large pond he uses for irrigation has gone dry, the smaller one is about to follow suit, the field corn is half the height it should be. The wheat crop was good - but the price lousy.

And some people are worrying about their backyard pools. Let them go jump in a lake. Literally.

Enough said.

| Issue 31 |

Volume VII Number 31
August 5-11, 1999
New Bay Times

| Homepage |
| Back to Archives |