The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Dry conditions taking toll on crops
BY KATIE THISDELL
Talk to many Northern Neck grain farmers this summer and they’ll gladly tell you their woes.
Excessive heat and not enough water are wreaking havoc with crops—and livelihoods.
“The corn is finished. Rain is not going to help it now,” said Danny Allensworth, who grew up in Westmoreland County and now grows grains on 1,000 acres there. “It’s about as bad a situation as you can get.”
Allensworth estimates he’ll get just a quarter of his typical yield, and maybe even less.
Many large-scale farmers east and south of Fredericksburg are saying the same things as those in the Midwest about corn, soybeans and other commodities, as the ground dries up and rainfall doesn’t arrive.
Consumers could see prices at the grocery store go up later this year, as the cost of corn impacts many other things on store shelves.
“The rains we’ve had this summer have been abnormal,” said Mike Broaddus, Caroline County cooperative extension agent. “They’ve been very violent and very small. It’s been spotty at best.”
A widespread drought now covers about 60 percent of the United States. Virginia is faring better, but Westmoreland and some other area counties are still nearly 7 inches of rainfall behind the annual average.
“We’d get a tenth of an inch here, two-tenths there. It’s not enough,” said Allensworth, 40.
Fredericksburg’s University of Mary Washington weather station has recorded 17.9 inches of precipitation so far this year. However, some areas have received more rainfall and some less.
The National Weather Service describes the area as having abnormally dry conditions.
“We’ve had some dry spells,” Broaddus said. “We’ve had some small droughts, [but] nothing this severe for this long.”
CORN FIELDS SUFFER
Depending on the variety, corn is planted in April and harvested in September.
Corn needs a lot of water when it’s pollinating, around the first of July. That’s when pollen falls off the tassels of the plants onto the silks, which are connected to where the kernels form. Without water, the kernels aren’t able to grow.
This year is reminiscent of 2010, said Allensworth, who now lives in King and Queen County with his wife, Melissa. That year, he got just 6 bushels of corn per acre, a fraction of his typical yield.
Across Westmoreland, farmers brought in 501,000 bushels of corn from 12,500 acres, said Stephanie Romelczyk, the county’s agriculture extension agent. But last year’s yield, 1.9 million bushels off 13,100 acres, was nearly quadruple that amount.
“That’s substantial. That’s just for corn. It’s just a big difference,” Romelczyk said. “It’ll be an interesting year to see how everything plays out.”
In 2011, Virginia farmers harvested 40 million bushels of corn, less than 1 percent of the country’s total production, according to the Virginia Grain Producers Association.
Crop insurance helps to cover losses, but it can still be rough.
All of Allensworth’s corn goes to Perdue Farms in Tappahannock for chicken feed, along with the majority of Westmoreland’s yield, he said.
He averages 135 bushels per acre. Each acre of corn costs about $450 to grow. Perdue currently pays about $7 per bushel. If you do the math, you can see that drought makes profits disappear.
Vegetable farms aren’t affected as much by the hot and dry conditions, because most have irrigation systems.
SHOPPERS SEE COSTS RISE
Cattle farmer Shirley Powell, 69, who runs Monrovia Farm near Colonial Beach, is also worried this year.
“As a farmer, I’ll be lucky enough to have enough food to feed my cattle,” said Powell, picking kernels off a cob that’s worthless because it’s too small to go through the machines.
Usually, he sells about two-thirds of the corn he grows on 200 acres, and keeps one-third to feed his 100 head of cows.
He anticipates having to reduce his herd size because feed could just be too expensive, along with all the other costs of running a farm.
“The overall consumer, before it’s over, they’re going to know it,” Powell said of the dry weather.
There’s still hope for his 350 acres of soybeans, but Mother Nature must cooperate.
“We need rain now,” he said.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975