Dry weather is causing problems for trees, crops

By Lynn R. Parks

An 80-foot oak, part of the landscaping at the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension office near Georgetown for as long as the office has been there, has died. Extension agent Jay Windsor blames its death on the ongoing dry weather, which started last fall. “That tree was 75 years old, and it is dead,” he said. “We have a cedar, about 50 years old, in the front yard and it is half dead. A lot of trees that have been around for years are dying, because it is so dry.” According to state agriculture statistician Tom Feurer, every month since September has seen below-normal rainfall in Sussex County. “And there is not any hope in sight,” he said. Long-range forecasts are for continued dry weather. The state’s Department of Agriculture recently released its forecast for the state’s corn crop. It anticipates a harvest of 85 bushels of corn per acre, irrigated and non-irrigated fields combined. That is down from a harvest of 146 bushels per acre in 2001. “That 85 bushels will probably be lower in Sussex County, because fields in New Castle County are not as bad,” Feurer added. The harvest in Sussex was 151 bushels per acre in 2001, 173 per acre in 2000. There are about 250,000 acres of cropland in Sussex County. Between 115,000 and 120,000 of those are in corn. “Our corn that is not irrigated is completely gone,” said a Seaford-area farmer who with his son tills about 300 acres and who did not want his name used. “We will harvest it to get our crop insurance, but it won’t even meet our expenses.” The farmer said that on non-irrigated land, he typically harvests between 65 to 75 bushels of corn per acre. Last year, what he called a good year, he harvested 100 bushels per acre. While he was unable to predict how much he will pick this year, he expects that it will not be anywhere near the average. “A lot of farmers that have dairy cattle are cutting the corn for silage, before it deteriorates to the point that it is not even valuable as silage,” said Feurer. Even corn that is irrigated is not faring as well as it would under normal conditions. “Irrigation is not the same is rainfall,” said the Seaford farmer, who waters about 130 acres. “There is a certain amount of nutrients that come with the rain that you don’t get with irrigation. Irrigation is meant to help out with a crop, not to make it, the way it has had to this year.” Running an irrigation system also cuts into a farmer’s profits. The Seaford farmer estimates that in a typical year, irrigation costs about $30 an acre. This year, because his irrigation has been running “fairly continuously,” he estimates that it will cost $60 an acre. That does not include the cost of installation, which can run about $1,000 an acre. Corn is not the only farm crop that is struggling. Soybeans, even though they don’t require the water that corn does, are suffering from heat and dryness. “Some soybeans are dying,” said Feurer. “They are under a lot of stress from the heat and from spider mites,” small sucking pests that attack plants in hot and dry weather. Plants that are able to survive are losing their blossoms, he said. Fewer blossoms means fewer beans. Feurer said that many soybeans, planted after wheat or barley was harvested, never germinated. “Or they germinated and then it was so dry that the seedling died,” he added. Farming is not the only business that is suffering. “Nurseries are not selling anything because no one is planting,” Windsor said. “And they are struggling just to keep their stock alive.” Beth Messick, owner of Bess’ Buds, Delmar, said that in 21 years in the nursery business, she had never seen it this dry. “Keeping things watered is a 24-hour business,” she said. “We are hand watering 8 hours a day and running the sprinklers from 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 at night.” She said that she is thankful that she is able to keep her plants, including about an acre of mums, alive. But she does not expect to be able to recoup the money that she has spent on irrigation. “This fall, when the rains finally do come, people will want to plant. And I would like to be able to charge more for my trees. But the customers won’t want to pay the difference. So it will definitely cut into my profits.” Similarly, Jeff Hastings, owner of Jeff’s Greenhouses in Bethel, said that the expenses of irrigation will lower his profits. “We will just have to eat it,” he said. “I don’t think that the way the economy is, we will be able to raise prices.” Hastings said that he is having to water 25,000 field-grown mums two times a day rather than the customary once a day. Greenhouse plants, including 35,000 poinsettias just starting, also demand more water. “We have shade clothes over all the greenhouses to cut out the light, but with the heat and humidity, we have to water twice as often,” he said. The county’s wooded areas are also suffering, Windsor said. Trees that typically grow in swampy areas are now standing in dry soil and their roots, starved of water, are dying. “Even the trees that are surviving, you will see significant die-back for the next two to three years, because their root systems are diminished,” Windsor said. Windsor said that in 40 years of working in agriculture, he does not remember a dry spell like this one. “We need a lot of water, about an inch a week, in this area to keep things green,” he said. “Right now, we need several 2- to 3-inch rains, then 1-inch rains every week. “But even a little cloud cover would be nice. We have had bright days all summer long and transpiration and evaporation have been at a maximum.”

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