Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Farmers don’t expect much for federal relief

Aid is only available if loans are denied by two banks

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Gov. Martin O’Malley and other state leaders have been touting the designation of Maryland as a federal drought disaster area, but some farmers say it won’t be enough to help them recoup their losses.

‘‘It’s been a tough year to walk out and see your crops burning up all year,” said Mason Hopkins Jr., who farms nearly 1,000 acres in Montgomery County and owns Frozen Level Farms near White’s Ferry. ‘‘It makes anticipation of the fall harvest not that good. Then you have to decide if it is worth harvesting.”

The federal program that provides low-interest loans to farmers if they’re turned down by two banks first is unlikely to assist farmers because banks are always eager to loan them money, he said.

‘‘If the lender does turn down a farmer, maybe he shouldn’t be farming,” Hopkins said. ‘‘I don’t really want a handout from the government. On the other hand, it’s not my fault it didn’t rain.”

While the recent rainfall might help the fall’s soybean crop, it is too late in the growing season for the corn and other crops, Hopkins said.

Hopkins, who grows corn, wheat and soybean and raises beef cattle, has better hopes for a possible county program than the federal program.

County leaders are considering a $1.5 million grant program to help its farmers. Next month, the County Council will hold a public hearing on the plan, which would make county farmers with more than a 20 percent loss of their crops eligible for a small grant. If approved, this would be the third time the county has initiated the program. The county helped 96 farmers in 1999 and 62 farmers in 1997.

‘‘That’ll definitely help from the county,” Hopkins said. ‘‘It’s good to see they recognize us as an important part of the economy.”

On Aug. 21, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns declared the state eligible for drought disaster relief, making farmers eligible for 3.75 percent interest emergency loans.

‘‘This is welcome news for Maryland farmers who have been hard-hit by drought conditions this summer,” O’Malley (D) said in a statement.

Loan applications must be received by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency within eight months of the disaster designation date. The loans can be used to pay production costs for the year, essential farming and living expenses as well as debt refinancing.

Farmers can borrow up to 100 percent of actual losses, up to $500,000, and usually must repay the loans in one to seven years, but longer repayment schedules may be approved.

Across the state, agriculture officials estimate that farmers have lost 30 percent to 60 percent of their crops, O’Malley said in a statement.

‘‘We hope this will have some financial benefit to our producers to help with them continue their operations into the future,” state Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson said in a statement.

While O’Malley was quick to announce that federal assistance was on the way, some farmers greeted the news less enthusiastically.

‘‘It depends on the type of program,” said Richard Pry, who raises beef cattle on his Burkittsville farm. ‘‘Sometimes the federal government is a year or two behind in getting the programs in place. It’s going to be months before it comes and of course you need the feed now. You can’t tell the cattle not to eat. It doesn’t work that way.”

Pry called this year’s drought the worst since the 1960s.

‘‘I’ve been hauling water for my cattle on one farm since July 9,” he said. ‘‘We’ve been feeding hay in the field — our winter supply.”

Staff Writers Margie Hyslop, Chris Brown and Janel Davis contributed to this report.