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Loudoun Farmers Survive Dry Conditions

Drought brings early corn harvest and less-than-average yields.

Leesburg area farmer John Whitmore says he is "fortunate," though his beef cattle are underweight and the corn and vegetables he grows have less-than-average yields.

A drought watch has been in effect in Loudoun since February, meaning drier conditions for the county's agricultural producers.

"The general observation is we've been extremely lucky in Loudoun. We've had better moisture than to the north and south," said Louis Nichols, agriculture development officer for the county's Department of Economic Development. "Our crops, even though they are stressed somewhat, are in much better shape than in other places."

Whitmore should know. "You have to spread yourself across the spectrum because so many things can go wrong," he said about farming 1,150 acres near Lucketts, 860 acres of which he owns and the rest under lease, and selling some of the crops at a farmer's market on the family farm. The Prosperwell farm has been in his family since 1841.

"I have 200 head of beef cow, so they need pasture. They need green grass to grow," Whitmore said, adding that with the dry conditions, "they won't gain the weight. Since you sell them on a per-weight basis, they didn't bring in as much."

Whitmore had to supplement pasture grass with corn silage and hay, which is normally saved for winter feeding. He began cutting the corn silage last month, though he typically stores the crop for the spring feed.

Farmers are using crops early and not planting late summer crops as a result of the dry conditions.

"We normally would be planting fields into hay or pasture and/ or wheat and barley," said Gary Hornbaker, director and agricultural extension agent for the Loudoun Cooperative Extension. "Most farmers aren't planting anything now. It's so dry."

WEATHER CONDITIONS last year were dry through fall and winter from little snow and rainfall, leaving the county at a "deficit for the spring," Nichols said.

Below normal precipitation is expected to continue during the fall and winter seasons, possibly propelling the county toward a drought warning if dry weather continues. The Potomac River dropped below level this summer, requiring releases from two reservoir storage areas called Little Seneca and Jennings-Randolph. The reservoirs support the Potomac River, an indirect water resource for the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority (LCSA). The LCSA purchases water from the Fairfax County Water Authority, which gets it water from the Potomac River, and from the City of Fairfax, which uses water from the Goose Creek.

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, which manages the river as a resource for water suppliers, made several releases from the reservoirs from July 12-14 and from Aug. 13-Sept. 1, starting the releases again on Sept. 6 and stopping them the morning of Sept. 24. The releases are expected to start again in the next few days as reported by the Interstate Commission, said Samantha Villegas, communications manager for the LCSA.

The reservoirs' combined storage level was expected to drop to 65 percent by the end of the day Sept. 24 after being at a 70 percent level earlier this month. The last time releases were made from the reservoir was in 1999.

"Though it's low, there is plenty of water in there to help us in the metropolitan Washington area meet water demand," Villegas said.

THE REGION could move into a drought warning if the water storage level drops to 60 percent for five consecutive days as long as there is no significant rainfall and the releases are continued. The Interstate Commission said if the region does not get any appreciable rainfall and has to continue making releases, the region could enter into a drought warning in early October. With a warning, residents are encouraged to make voluntary water restrictions.

"Loudoun is really not as bad off as Fairfax, Arlington, Washington, D.C. and points northeast," Villegas said, adding that the area received less precipitation than did Loudoun County. "That's not to say we're not dry. We're abnormally dry."

Chip Planck, a vegetable farmer in Purcellville, uses a large pond and irrigation system, plants inlays and mulches his crops on his 35-acre farm to try to avoid the effects of dry weather conditions. Even so, his crops this year were smaller in size and gave lower yields.

"It doesn't give you rain, it prevents moisture loss," he said. "Things are just less lush."

Crops statewide have had reduced yields this year, said Steve Manheimer, state statistician for the Virginia Agricultural Statistics Service. Corn was affected most severely, since the crop in some parts of the state did not get rain during the growing season.

"July is a critical month for corn when pollination occurs, and July was a dry hot month. Hot with no rain dries up soil moisture," Manheimer said. "The last two years have been very good for crop yield. Comparing this year to them shows less."

Soy beans, cotton, hay and pastures grown across the state saw low growth and low yields in crop production. In Loudoun, similar crops were affected on some of the county's 185,000 acres of forestry and agricultural land, which make up 1,032 farms, according to the 2001 Virginia Agricultural Statistics.

LOUDOUN FARMERS typically did not get a second cutting of hay and had less pasture production on the 50,000 acres of pasture in the county. In some cases, they had to move livestock off field to a water source or bring water to them.

The dry weather caused corn crops to dry down faster, allowing farmers to start harvesting in early September two to three weeks early and save on the expense of drying the corn for storage, Hornbaker said. The county has 10,000 acres of corn crops.

"In Loudoun County, we've been very fortunate," Hornbaker said. "We got a lot of hay early. Our corn crop got rain when it needed it. Our farmers are concerned, but we're also very fortunate."

However, bad weather will be "a blessing," Hornbaker said, adding that the agricultural community needs snow and cold weather to improve conditions for growing crops and raising livestock. The snow would provide moisture, while cold weather would help control insect populations by freezing out some of the eggs. Insect populations are higher this year, including gypsy moths, canker worms, mosquitoes, ticks and aphids, which suck the nutrients out of plants.

"We need lots of rain and snow this winter to replenish underground water supplies, and that in turn will bring on a normal year of crop production," Hornbaker said.