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Crops take hit in drought

Cotton blooms along Business Route 58 between Carrsville and Franklin. Local officials say the harvest for cotton, peanuts and soybeans will be down 50 percent, despite recent rains. -- Gwen Albers | Tidewater News

COURTLAND—Despite intermittent showers over the last six weeks, local agricultural officials predict this year’s drought will result in lower yields for peanuts, cotton and soybeans.

“They are going to be off, but to what extent we don’t know,” Janet Spencer, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for Isle of Wight County, said Tuesday. “We’re not sure exactly what it will be until we start to get into harvest season.”

Although farmers in Southampton and Isle of Wight counties have already lost 70 and 85 percent of their corn crop, respectively, Spencer doesn’t believe the losses will exceed 50 percent in peanuts, cotton and soybeans.

“Obviously, for the corn crop the rain was way too late,” Spencer said. “For the other crops, we were a little hopeful when we started getting afternoon thunderstorms and showers back in late July and the beginning of August. But by the time we got the rain (the crops) had already done everything that it was going to do for the summer.”

Spencer said soybeans fared the best of the three.

“They were just inches tall when we had the drought conditions and the heat back in the beginning part of July,” Spencer said. “Once we got some significant rainfall, they just grew and really haven’t slowed down any. Their pods are forming the beans now. We need rain now so they can go on with bean formation.”

She said peanuts also took advantage of the rain.

“The rain certainly helped,” Spencer said. “The peanut crops were looking pretty sad before we had the rain. It has helped with peanut formation under the ground.”

But despite the rain, she said lower yields in soybeans and peanuts were expected.

“We probably will see some type of loss because of the conditions that we saw early on, but we can’t even guess at this point what that might be,” Spencer said.

Spencer predicted that there would also be less cotton harvested.

“The problem with the cotton around here is that it was a short plant,” she said. “It was able to produce bolls, and there are some nice bolls on the plant, but there just weren’t as many as we would like to see.”

Spencer said cotton is usually harvested into November, but bolls were opening now and she said farmers would soon be applying a chemical defoliant to cause the cotton plants’ leaves to dry up, making it easier to harvest the cotton bolls.

“This year everything is being pushed a little bit earlier because of the (drought) conditions,” Spencer said. “We’re probably looking at October for harvest of cotton and peanuts. Soybeans would be a little bit later than that.”

Neil Clark, the interim Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for Southampton County, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Southampton County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on July 26 asking Gov. Bob McDonnell to declare the county a drought disaster area. Their counterparts in Isle of Wight followed suit on Aug. 19. Officials in both counties estimate that combined losses in the corn, pasture and hay harvest totals $7.2 million.

McDonnell spokesperson Stacey Johnson said last month that at least 19 of the state’s 95 counties had requested designation as a drought disaster area. She said the main requirement to qualify is for a locality to lose 30 percent of a major crop to drought.

With the aid from the government, local 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, to a maximum of $500,000.