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Farmers struggle as dry weather blankets east

Monday, September 27, 2010 | 10:40 a.m. CDT; updated 8:39 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 27, 2010
Farmer Rick Ebert stands in his pasture next to a dry culvert with some of his dairy cows on his farm in New Alexandria, Pa on Friday. Rain fell on Ebert's dairy farm last week, but the less than 1/4 inch that dropped didn't do much to help his parched well. Instead, he had 3,000 gallons of water trucked in this week to ensure that his cows stayed hydrated and cool. "We really don't want a thunderstorm where it downpours and runs off," Ebert said. "We really need an all-day, nice rain."

PITTSBURGH — When rain fell recently on Rick Ebert's dairy farm, the less than one-quarter inch didn't do much to fill his parched well. He had to have 3,000 gallons of water trucked in last week to ensure his cows stayed hydrated and cool.

"We really need an all-day nice rain," said Ebert, who runs Will-Mar-Re Farms in New Alexandria,Pa.

The same could be said in much of the eastern U.S., where abnormally dry conditions have forced some states to issue drought warnings and raised the risk of brush fires. Some farmers say they expect to harvest half of what they normally do, cutting their income while they're paying more for water and feed.

But although the weather is causing them some pain, the drought-like conditions haven't been widespread enough to affect consumers, who are more likely to see the difference in their brown lawns than their grocery bills.

"For the most part, rainfall has been below normal in most areas across the Northeast. It started probably about the middle of June, and it will probably continue into the next couple weeks," said Tom Kines, a meteorologist at Accuweather.

Inland areas of Pennsylvania, the mid-Atlantic, Ohio and parts of New Jersey up to Maine have been the driest, Kines said.

Last week, Pennsylvania officials put 24 counties under a drought warning and the rest of the state under a drought watch. Most Pennsylvania counties get 37 to 45 inches of rain a year. This year, they've had between two and 10 inches less.

"Fall is starting earlier, the corn is being harvested sooner because it's drying out," said Cheryl Bjornson, a Penn State Cooperative Extension educator in Chester County. "Anybody who doesn't have irrigation is going to be affected. If farmers are irrigating then they're ahead of the game."

Maryland agriculture officials expect the state's corn production to be off by 30 percent from last year and soybeans to be down 16 percent. Some spots have had a foot less rain than normal.

Eastern Shore farmer Ed Heikes, who has about 1,400 acres in Talbot County, said a 7 1/2-inch deluge in July gave his corn a fighting chance, but there's been scant rain since. His crop will be 30 to 35 percent below average, he said.

Farther west in Carroll County, corn yields are ranging from a paltry 5 bushels per acre to a modest 100, said farmer Lawrence Meeks of Silver Run.

"It's going to be a really tough year for farmers," said Meeks, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay on 2,800 acres near the Pennsylvania state line.

"The beans will not be what they might have been because the top pods in the plant are generally not filling out — they're drying up," Meeks said.

In Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear extended his request for federal disaster assistance to 55 counties because of drought conditions that began in August. The dry spell there has inflicted a double whammy on burley tobacco by hurting the quantity and quality of leaf. Kentucky is the nation's top producer of burley, a main ingredient in cigarettes.

Glenn Mackie, the agricultural extension agent in Bourbon County, estimated the average burley yield in his area would be down about 500 pounds per acre from a year ago. The dryness also is hurting tobacco curing — a process in which the long green leaves gradually change to reddish brown as the leaf is prepared for market.

"It's going to hurt the yield, but it's going to hurt the quality more," Mackie said of the dry spell. "We're still not too late for that to change, but at this point we're entirely too dry for good curing."

In northwestern Pennsylvania, the dry weather hasn't been all bad news, though. The lack of rain has been a boon to vineyards who report a bumper crop of grapes.

"Nice dry weather is actually a blessing," said Nick Mobilia, owner of Arrowhead Wine Cellars Inc. in North East, Pa.

He grows grapes on 200 acres outside of Erie, Penn. and said wet weather tends to create problems with disease and mildew. When it's dry, the grapes retain their natural sugars.

"We're happy people right now," Mobilia said, although he acknowledged other farmers' problems. "What's good for one, is never good for the other."


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