St. Mary's County farmer Tommy Bowles has been pumping water to his pumpkin patch and corn maze to prepare for pre-Halloween crowds. But he can't afford to irrigate all his crops, and the corn, soybeans and wheat are suffering in the heat and bone-dry soil.

"This is about the worst drought I've seen since I've been in farming -- and I've been farming for 33 years," Bowles, 52, said. "We just haven't really had any rain at all."

Between 11 p.m. and midnight last night almost a half inch of rain poured down in parts of western Fairfax County, but even that was far from enough to overcome the drought.

In August, all of Maryland and seven Virginia counties were declared federal drought disaster areas. Today, Virginia officials are expected to announce that eight additional counties, including Loudoun, received the U.S. Department of Agriculture designation, which allows farmers to qualify for low-interest loans.

The hot, dry weather is being felt across the country. Experts call it the worst drought to hit the United States in years, parching wide swaths of the country, from Georgia and Alabama to New England and west to Minnesota and Wisconsin. "This is a real doozy," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska.

At livestock sales in Virginia, farmers are selling cattle that can't find enough to eat on parched pastures. And the Loudoun Hay & Straw Buyer's Guide showed last month that more than half the listed producers were sold out or limiting sales -- a bad sign for farmers who need hay to feed livestock through the winter.

Across the Washington area and farther off in Virginia and Maryland, heat and dry conditions have had an impact beyond farms. Lawns are withered; schoolyards are dusty. Some localities are asking residents to conserve water.

At Reagan National Airport, 7.55 inches of rain have fallen since June 1. Part of that fell last night -- 0.31 inches by midnight. But the total is about four inches below normal.

There could be more showers today, but National Weather Service meteorologist Jim DeCarufel said they would not end the drought. "It unfortunately takes a tropical storm or something of that magnitude," he said.

Despite the dry weather, the Fairfax County Water Authority reports that water supplies remain adequate. Some maps kept by the National Climatic Data Center show the drought in Maryland and Virginia was more severe in August 1999 than it was last month.

This year, some areas in the two states have been hit hard, and others have received enough rain to eke by.

In Shenandoah National Park, oaks and other trees are wilting in isolated patches, but in most areas of the park, the trees are lush. It's too soon to predict how impressive the fall foliage will be, said Karen Beck-Herzog, a park spokeswoman. She said nature needs a combination of warm days, cool nights and a little rain for a brilliant show.

The drought has been worse in Salisbury, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where the year-to-date rainfall total is 11 inches below normal, said Sue DuPont, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Charles County commissioners will vote tomorrow on a proposal to limit how often residents may water lawns and wash cars. The Loudoun County Sanitation Authority has encouraged voluntary conservation and even sponsored a Brownest Lawn contest. The authority is considering asking the county to impose mandatory restrictions, spokeswoman Samantha Villegas said.

Bill McKinnon, executive secretary of the Virginia Cattlemen's Association, said farmers who typically rely on lush pastures to keep cattle fed during the summer and fall have had to supplement with hay for weeks. He said some farmers have reduced the size of their herds, even selling "good mamas" to ensure there's enough feed to make it through the winter.

"It's like selling parts of your factory," McKinnon said. "She's the one that turns out that calf that makes a product that's on the dinner table. She's the gold mine."

In Southern Maryland, corn has shriveled, and farmers are hoping for rain soon to moisten the ground before they plant barley, wheat and other grains this month.

"The next concern will be people that plant small grain, cover crops, wheat and barley, that we get enough rain to germinate those and get them up and growing before winter sets in," said Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, Maryland's deputy secretary for agriculture.

Hance, a Calvert County farmer, said his corn has been devastated. He normally harvests about 130 bushels on his Port Republic farm, but this season yielded only 30.

"You can drive through the countryside and see that . . . crops are hurt pretty badly," said Jim Shepherd, a Calvert business development specialist who oversees a farmers market. "The corn is brown and stunted, and the grass isn't even growing in the middle of the highways." Nevertheless, some crops thrive in the dry weather.

In Loudoun County, winemaker Lew Parker has been harvesting some of the sweetest grapes ever produced at Willowcroft Farm Vineyards. And the dry weather yields some of the tastiest tomatoes.

"It's always a complicated picture in agriculture," said Warren Howell, a Loudoun agricultural development officer. "One person's disaster is another's fortune."