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Farmers Battle Worst U.S. Drought In 50 Years

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Ben Allmutt of Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Md., is reporting corn yields about 20 percent of normal levels.
Armando Trull
Ben Allmutt of Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Md., is reporting corn yields about 20 percent of normal levels.

Ben Allmutt stands near one of the drip ponds on his farm in Poolesville, Md., looking down at the wide muddy strip where the edge of the water has receded far below normal levels.  

"We've been watering everything we can … we're sort of holding our ground until the rains come," Allmutt says, his John Deere cap shielding his face from the sun. It's just after 7 a.m., but it's already nearly 80 degrees.

It's a familiar scene on farms throughout Maryland, as well as the rest of the country. A severely hot, dry season has been wreaking havoc on farms around the U.S. for several months, and the National Climate Data Center now says 2012 has had the worst drought conditions in more than 50 years. 

The Homestead Farm has been in the Allmutt family for generations. They grow everything from tomatoes, corn and eggplant to peaches and blackberries on his 230 acres of farmland. Homestead has had to tap those drip ponds far more than usual this year, says Allmutt.

"We can get a crop, but it's certainly a lot easier to let the rain come out of the sky," he adds.

Crops like blackberries are done for without that water.  "The secret is water as well as sun," he says. "It's a southern summer, and  blackberries love the heat, but you have to add water. If I didn't water these, we'd have tiny little blackberries with nothing but seeds." 

Behind him, a generator hooked up to an irrigation system pumps water from the drip ponds through an irrigation system spanning Homestead's 200-plus acres. Water levels in those ponds is low across the state.

"We're about 4 feet below the spillway, which is the normal level of the water," Allmutt says. 

Across town, farmer Eric Spates, who farms about 1,000 acres, is already seeing the effects of the drought on his corn. Spates pulls off a healthy ear of corn, its color rich yellow and its kernels plump. Then he pulls an ear off another plant whose bottom leaves brown and wilted. 

The second ear is just three inches long, with one whole side missing kernels.  

"We're looking at an ear here which typically ought to be 8-10 inches long," he says. "As you can see this thing failed to pollinate on one side completely, and the other side is really spotty."

Almost one-quarter of Spates' land is devoted to corn crops, and what he's seen so far doesn't look good. This section of the field, which would usually produce 120-150 bushels of corn per acre, will likely only yield 20-30 bushels per acre, he says. 

"It's a significant reduction in our production, which of course affects the bottom line," Spates says. "I don't know what the ultimate impact is going to be … some places in the field look better than this. But this will have a significant economic impact for us, that we'll grow a lot less corp than we anticipated." 

Over at Homestead, Ben Allmutt expects much the same, unless the weather dramatically improves. 

"It's a whole game of economics," he says. "If you don't grow as much and it costs just as much to plant and raise it, then something's got to give, and I think it's going to be the prices." 

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