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Water, Water, Everywhere, But Not a Drop to.....Farm With

by Andre German
Much of the adverse effect of the drought on Maryland farming can be attributed to an increase in the growth of corn, a drought-sensitive crop.
Maryland is currently facing a drought crisis so severe that, in the opinion of Earl "Buddy" Hance, a fifth-generation farmer in Calvert County and the state's Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, it's the worst in a quarter-century. Certain parts of Maryland, mostly in Southern Maryland and the lower Eastern Shore, haven't seen significant rain since May, leading Governor Martin O'Malley to ask federal authorities to declare a drought disaster in parts of the state, hoping to open up federal aid for farmers hurt by the dry conditions.

Much of the adverse effect on Maryland farmers can be attributed to an increase in the growth of corn, a drought-sensitive crop. According to Sue DuPont, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Agriculture, farmers have reported losses of 30 percent to 60 percent statewide because of the ongoing drought. Some farmers are devoting more acres to corn, because of increasing demand for corn ethanol, a biofriendly fuel.

Along with O'Malley's plea to federal authorities, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski and Representative Wayne Gilchrest have been advancing the federal aid cause in Washington, the former by preparing a letter of support, the latter by meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns to discuss the drought.

In my view, this is the wrong end of the stick. Though federal aid is certainly needed, it is a band-aid rather than a true fix. And though I support any attempt to create a more bio-friendly fuel, corn ethanol is not it. Given the remarkable inefficiencies of corn-derived ethanol in both production and use when compared to sugar cane-derived ethanol, cellulose-derived ethanol and algae-derived ethanol, and the fact that much of our food product is corn-based (see Michael Pollan's excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma), the logistics of using corn as a fuel are currently unresolvable.

Though farms would be hurting from the drought regardless of the type of crops planted, the situation is being exacerbated by the false expectations of corn ethanol as a biofuel. In addition to fixing the temporary problem of this drought, our public officials also need to concentrate on biofuel education so that the next drought doesn't affect our farmers to the same extent.
Andre German writes from Harford County, Md.

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This story was published on July 26, 2007 and amended on July 27, 2007.