James Rada, Jr.
(8/16) On August 9, Mike Hillman was like a kid as
Christmas as he watched an approaching storm.
He stood outside at a fence as the breeze
picked up and whipped at the trees. He looked
west as the gathering storm clouds obscured
his view of the Catoctin Mountains and smiled.
He climbed over the wooden fence and stood
in what had been pasture but was now a growing
dirt patch. He kicked at the ground stirring
up a little dust cloud.
“We need this storm. Now if it just doesn’t
miss us,” Hillman said.
That’s been part of the problem with the
drought that the region is experiencing. When
storms do come, they have been spot showers
that moved through quickly. Three weeks
earlier, Hillman had stood in the wash stall
in his barn watching a storm approach. As he
looked out the window, he could see a
downpour, but as he looked out the front of
the barn all he saw was sun.
As the first raindrops fall, he lifts his
face to the sky and says, “Yes!”
Then he jumps the fence again and rushes
inside up to the second-floor porch of his
house. The rain is coming down harder now and
Hillman is all smiles. When the storm abates,
he hurries out to his wife’s garden checking
the rain gauge. Eight-tenths of an inch had
“That’s not much, but it’s four times the
amount we got in all of June and July,”
Frederick County farmers have been
struggling with the lack of water since May.
At that point, Hillman started having to feed
his horses hay when they were in the field.
“We’ve never had to do that before in the
18 years we’ve been here,” Hillman said.
“They’ve always been able to forage in the
Now Hillman is paying for hay he never had
to pay for before and he’s paying twice as
much for it because it’s in short supply
because hay harvests have been off as much as
Frederick County farmland covers around
195,000 acres or about 10 percent of the
state’s total farmland. As the largest
agricultural county in the state, it supports
about 1200 farms. So when the rain doesn’t
fall in the county, it can make the difference
between the survival of small and large farms.
Stanley Foltz, dairy science extension
agent, said, “Many of our farmers are really
struggling. Many of our guys who have been
doing all right are taking money out of
Many farmers had to take from savings last
year to get by and this year’s drought will
only make it tougher for them to recover,
according to Foltz.
“We’re going to see quite a few more
farmers get out this year,” Foltz said.
According to him, over the past 10 years,
Frederick County has lost about 5 percent of
its dairy farms a year. Between May 2006 and
May 2007, the number of dairy farms in the
county fell from 138 to 125 or 9.5 percent.
Not all farmers in the county are
suffering, though. Bob Black with Catoctin
Mountain Orchards, said, “My father had the
foresight back in the 1960’s to have
irrigation ponds dug.”
The four irrigation ponds are spring fed,
and although the levels are off somewhat, they
are still full.
The lack of water has given Black a sweet
peach crop, though. “The peaches are the best
tasting ever,” he said. “The dry conditions
mean they’ve been filling up with sugar not
Black does have to be cautious with his
workers in the field. He makes sure they have
plenty of water and take frequent breaks.
“When I hear the weatherman say, ‘Stay
inside,’ I have to laugh. When you’ve got
crops, you’ve got to harvest them or lose
them,” Black said.