Devastating drought

Published 10:54 am Saturday, July 24, 2010

COURTLAND— During 40 years of farming, Larry Whitley believed the drought of 1980 was the worst.

Until now.

“It’s probably going to be worse than 1980,” said Whitley, who works with his son, Bruce, on farms along Rosemont Road near Sedley. “It’s a total disaster this year.”

It’s a sentiment shared by farmers across the county. In response, the Southampton County Board of Supervisors at its meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, July 26, will consider asking Gov. Bob McDonnell to declare the county a drought disaster area.

If the governor declares Southampton a disaster area, farmers may qualify for low-interest emergency loans to cover property and production costs, living expenses or certain debts. Farmers can borrow up to 100 percent of actual production or physical losses up to $500,000.

“The drought conditions of the past few months necessitate the call for a disaster declaration,” Neil Clark, interim Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent for Southampton County, said in a letter Wednesday to county officials. “The corn crop is devastated in all but the best ground with about a 70 percent loss countywide.”

Southampton has about 11,000 acres dedicated to growing corn this year, and more than 8,500 is pastureland.

According to data from Southampton County Review Committee, farm income losses total more than $3.7 million. The committee members are local farmers and representatives from the Cooperative Extension, Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Clark said $3.34 million of the farm income losses were from the corn crop at current market values. He said pasture losses, estimated at 60 percent, would total $354,800.

“Additionally, peanuts and soybeans and even cotton are very delayed, which will likely affect yields significantly without significant rain in the coming weeks,” Clark said.

Whitley said he and his son won’t know just how devastating the drought has been at their farm until they put a combine in the fields to attempt to harvest what little corn is out there. But he expects a poor crop this year, with small cobs and very few kernels.

“It’s been so hot this year that it’s been extremely hard for the corn to pollinate,” Whitley said. “The heat probably hasn’t done as much damage as the dry weather, but it certainly has done a lot of damage. Very little pollination has taken place.”

He added that it might not even be worth the time and expense of harvesting.

“Most combines are designed to harvest a good crop,” Whitley said. “When you’re trying to harvest a poor crop, the combine is much less efficient. You could just be running the equipment for nothing.”

Whitley said the drought has also hit the family’s 1,300 acres of soybeans hard.

“I thought soybeans had a little promise, but they are starting to bloom,” Whitley said. “Once soybeans start into the reproductive stage they cut back on the vegetation stage. We have such a small plant out there, and a small plant can’t produce a great quantity. Right now, the height of these soybeans is probably about a fourth of what it should be at this time.”

He said that would translate to roughly a 75 percent loss in value for soybeans.

“I would love to see some rain, because it would certainly help,” Whitley said. “But the possibilities of a big soybean crop are over.”

Clark said the county received less than 0.3 inches of rain in June. Virginia averages 3.69 inches during the month.

Whitley said the family has crop insurance, which he is hopeful will cover half of their costs for things like fertilizer, seed and land rent. He said his son might even apply for an emergency loan down the road.

But 2010 will be a year they would just as soon forget.

“2007 was a very rough year,” he said. “We almost had a crop failure that year. If you have one (bad year) every seven, eight or 10 years, it’s not so bad. But when they come two or three years apart, it’s a tough pill to swallow.

“Farmers just have to have a lot of faith and hope next year will be better. That’s the farmer’s philosophy. You just never know.”