It’s been too dry, too long

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 20, 2007

FRANKLIN—Recent scattered thunderstorms may have been a case of too little, too late for many area farmers. And the short-term forecast offers little hope of improvement.

In a year when expectations of higher prices for harvested corn prompted Southampton farmers to plant twice as much as they did last year, an unusually hot and dry growing season is expected to result in a terrible harvest.

In fact, though area corn acreage doubled this year, the expected 50-percent yields will mean farmers bring in about the same amount as they did last year, Extension Agent Wes Alexander said Thursday. Higher prices should help offset the extra costs they incurred from planting extra acres.

&uot;This is such a large county that there is a lot of variability from one end to the other,&uot; he said. &uot;But potential corn yields have suffered greatly&uot; in the hot and dry conditions farmers have experienced this year.

Some areas have it worse than others. &uot;Over in the Black Creek area, they’re pitiful,&uot; Alexander said. Newsoms and Branchville farmers also have been especially hard-hit.

Various parts of the county received rain during the past week, but many did not. And even those that did get rain typically did not get the slow, steady downpours that soak into the earth and replenish groundwater.

Crops have suffered not just from a lack of water this year, Alexander said, but also from temperatures that have stayed too high for too long.

Corn, he explained, has a two-week pollination period, during which temperatures need to be generally milder than the consistently 90-plus-degree marks that occurred daily during that period this year.

The pollination problem is exposed when one looks at corn stalks several rows deep into local cornfields, where stalks are often devoid of ears, he said.

Farmers may have been glad to get the water and the break from the heat that this week’s rain brought, but for the most part it came too late to help the corn crop.

&uot;I don’t think the rain is going to have a lot of effect on corn,&uot; Alexander said. &uot;Corn is pretty much a done deal.&uot;

But rain, especially if it comes back in a consistent pattern for the next few weeks, could help peanuts develop a decent &uot;second crop,&uot; Alexander said.

Peanuts have been flowering for about three weeks, but most of the first sets of pegs the plants had established were burned up in the hot, dry soil. Rain and moderating temperatures could help new pegs to get established and begin producing peanuts.

Other crops also have been impacted by the severe summer weather, he said, though cotton and full-season soybeans both got a boost from the rain and would benefit from consistent rain.

&uot;Unfortunately all of our crops have suffered,&uot; and they have done so across a wide region that includes both Southampton and Isle of Wight counties.

Though Alexander said he has heard some predictions that August and September will be wet, he is hesitant to accept such remote forecasts.

Besides, the crops that can be saved still need water right now, and the near-term forecast does not look promising in that regard.

The Weather Channel’s Web site lists high temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s through Tuesday, with the mercury forecast to rise near 100 near the end of next week.

Precipitation is predicted to be in the form of scattered or isolated thunderstorms off and on for the next 10 days.

In short, look for more of the same of the weather that has had local farmers worried about their bottom line.