Fears of Drought, Poor Harvest Growing - Southern Maryland Headline News

Fears of Drought, Poor Harvest Growing

By Guy Leonard, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (April 10, 2008)—Farmers in St. Mary’s County and Southern Maryland in general are either buying new crop insurance policies or adjusting the ones they have, according to insurance agents who do business here, in fear that crops will suffer again this year as they did in last year’s drought.

“We’ve seen about a 10 to 15 percent increase in farmers coming in to buy crop insurance,” said Sharon Ambrose, a customer service representative with Riverland Insurance in Tapphanock, Va., which sells crop insurance locally. “It’s St. Mary’s County and it’s everywhere else.”

Ambrose said the increase is atypical because farmers who buy the crop insurance do not have to renew it year after year.

The 2007 drought that hit hard last summer caused Gov. Martin O’Malley to ask the federal government to declare 22 of the state’s 23 jurisdictions agriculture disaster zones.

The federal government honored the request and initiated crop disaster damage awards to farmers who owned crop insurance, which is underwritten by the federal government.

So far, according to Amy Farrell, director of the local Farm Service Agency for St. Mary’s and Calvert counties, farmers in both counties have received more than $900,000 for the crop losses they suffered.

The agency is still paying out benefits for losses farmers suffered from their grazing lands during last year’s drought as part of their livestock compensation program, Farrell said, and there is no relief in sight.

“We’re still low on rainfall for this year,” Farrell said. “And some of the ponds have not filled up.”

Additionally, those who went without crop insurance last year and therefore were not eligible to receive any disaster relief payments, did not want to run the risk of losing out this year if the harvest suffered again.

Some individual farmers lost as much as 90 percent of their crop loss last summer, according to county agricultural officials.

“After 2007 it’s a whole new ballgame,” Ambrose said. “They’re just a little scared; looking towards 2008 they’re comparing it to 2007.”

Brad Reeves, of Reeves Insurance in Leonardtown, said it’s too late for farmers without crop insurance to protect their spring crops; the deadline to buy one of those policies was March 15.

But they can still but a policy for their fall crops. The deadline for that policy is Sept. 30, he said.

Reeves said crop insurance was “fairly expensive” and that farmers often did not elect to pay premiums to cover more than 75 to 80 percent of their crops. “It becomes prohibitively expensive to go beyond that,” Reeves told The County Times.

But crop insurance is not a panacea for farmers because it only covers their operating costs and not any profits they may have lost, Reeves said.

It was just a measure to keep from shutting down completely, he said.

The problem for farmers was compounded, Reeves said, by rapidly increasing fuel and fertilizer costs, which have shot up by as much as 300 to 400 percent over the past few years, Reeves said.

“If you’re a good farmer and you’re productive, you’ll eliminate risk of going up belly up because you put out money you didn’t get back.”

But with the high costs of insuring their crops can farmers afford it?

“They’re saying the prices are so high, but we can’t not do it,” Reeves said.

Tom Weller, an independent insurance seller with Weller and Associates LLC in Mechanicsville, Va., confirmed that farmers have to pay higher premiums this year.

“The premiums were about 30 percent higher than last year for the same coverage levels,” Weller said, adding that Southern Maryland farmers were either keeping their coverage or raising the level of protection. “They’re trying to hedge the volatile market place.”

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