Drought Designation’s Impact On Farms Unclear

BERLIN – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared this week that 22 of Maryland’s counties, including Worcester, would be given natural disaster designations because of the excessive drought and heat that affected crops this past summer.

In a press release, Gov. Martin O’Malley expressed his appreciation to the federal government for recognizing the impact the dry conditions had on the state last summer and their actions to help reduce negative consequences.

“Late last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved our request for a disaster designation for crop losses suffered by Maryland farmers due to drought and excessive heat during the 2010 growing season.  I want to thank Secretary Vilsack for granting our request,” O’Malley said.

The governor went on to explain the specifics of what a natural disaster designation meant. 

“This designation recognizes crop losses of 30 percent or more in 22 counties,” stated O’Malley. “It is our hope that the designation will provide relief to the farmers who need it and help them prepare for the upcoming growing season.”

O’Malley added that the designation, “makes farm operators in all Maryland counties and Baltimore City eligible for assistance from USDA Farm Service Agency.”

Virgil Shockley, a Worcester County Commissioner and local farmer, summarized the benefits of the USDA’s labeling the counties.

“Basically, by getting the designation farmers can apply to the federal government for low cost loans,” he said.

The USDA’s act received a considerable amount of praise from Maryland’s government. The ability to qualify for emergency government loans has the potential to greatly benefit farmers, according to state Senators Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin. Mikulski called the designation, “great news for Maryland’s farmers.”

“This year’s dry, hot summer left Maryland farmers stressed and strained,” Mikulski added. “Their lives and livelihoods depend on their crops, and they turned to us for help. I am happy to see the USDA lending a hand to help farmers facing the devastating financial impact of the drought. … I won’t stop fighting for Maryland’s agricultural communities and farmers.”

Her counterpart, Cardin, agreed, saying, “Mother Nature was not kind to Maryland farmers this summer with drought and excessive heat taking a heavy toll on their livelihood. I am pleased to see USDA coming through with financial resources to help Maryland’s farmers and agricultural communities recover and rebuild.”

With the USDA’s designation of nearly all Maryland’s counties as natural disaster zones, there is a general feeling of optimism coming from both the federal and state level that the emergency loans will cauterize any major losses suffered by local farmers. Unlike his colleagues at the state level, however, Shockley is a little more skeptical that the designation will be a silver bullet for farmer’s worries.

“To qualify for the loans, you first have to be turned down by Farmer’s Credit and local banks,” Shockley said. “If it’s gotten to that point, you’re already in a lot of trouble and the loans might not be enough help.”

How much of a benefit Worcester county farmers receive from the USDA is still to be seen. The only thing officials could seem to agree on was the fact that Maryland farmers had a rough summer. Shockley did agree with that assessment.

“I’m getting 13 or 14 bushels an acre this year,” stated Shockley. “Last year, I was getting 60.”