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Effects of Last Summer's Drought Linger in West Virginia

posted on July 25, 2008


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - First, there was last summer's drought. Then came more bad news: skyrocketing fuel and fertilizer prices, and a wet spring that delayed West Virginia farmers' plantings and hay harvests.

In 2007, the state's 21,000 farms suffered millions of dollars in losses from the driest summer in years. Yet in an industry that serves mostly as a second income here, farmers are refusing to fold, even in the face of the latest setbacks.

"I don't know what's worse - too much rain or not enough," said Ed Smolder, a West Virginia University extension agent for Jackson County. "It's feast or famine."

Farmers got a break last week, the first since Smolder can remember that no significant rain fell, giving many the first real chance this year to cut hay, usually harvested in June.

"And it's July," Smolder said. "I've been here 31 years and this is the first time I've seen everyone finishing up the hay the week before the (county) fair," which began Monday.

While West Virginia has been spared a second straight summer of drought, that hasn't been the case elsewhere. A lack of rain in June renewed drought conditions that have spread across the Southeast for much of the past year.

A U.S. Drought Monitor report shows exceptional drought conditions - the most severe category - cover portions of the western Carolinas, with extreme conditions in northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee and the central Carolinas.

A year ago, there wasn't any hay in West Virginia. There were no soybeans and not much corn, either. The livestock industry suffered, too. Gov. Joe Manchin declared a 42-county emergency and asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for financial assistance. Officials feared drought-related losses could reach $100 million.

So far, the tally is vastly lower.

The USDA's Farm Service Agency recently paid out $2.2 million for livestock-related losses from drought last summer and a milder one in 2005. It accounts for lost weight on cattle, early sales and lost marketing opportunities, said state Department of Agriculture spokesman Buddy Davidson.

Nationwide, FSA has paid $2 billion to 530,000 producers for livestock and crop losses from natural disasters since 2005, said Salomon Ramirez, director for the FSA's production emergencies and compliance division.

State farmers are still dealing with setbacks.

West Virginia has an estimated 410,000 cattle. In 2007, many livestock owners sold off portions of their herds because of a lack of hay or water. Others hauled in water.

Cattle experts estimate there were 10,000 fewer mother cows this year compared with spring 2007, resulting in a lot fewer calves heading to market. Rebuilding the herd takes time.

"You're looking at two years after a drought before you would really expect to see a lot of rebuilding of the cow herd," said Jim Bostic, executive secretary of the West Virginia Cattlemen's Association.

David Richmond, a West Virginia University agricultural extension agent in the southern part of the state, said his two-county area lost more than a fourth of its breeding-age female livestock and "probably only gained 10 to 15 percent of those back."

Farmers also spent millions on hay to feed their animals because they couldn't grow it during the drought.

"People are still recovering. Their pastures were stressed," Richmond said. "A drought, it takes at least a year to recover to get back to normal. They just grazed it down to the dirt and we didn't get our fall regrowth like we traditionally get."

Besides livestock losses, federal payouts on state crop losses from the drought have surpassed $1 million.

Many farmers persevered. Industry experts say few, if any, of the state's farmers - many of them in business as a second income - shut down operations.

Ed Grafton lost nearly all the Christmas trees seedlings he planted last year.

This year, "instead of planting a couple thousand trees, I planted over 3,000 trees," said Grafton, president of the West Virginia Tree Growers Association. "That ought to catch me back up to what I lost last year."

Bob Gritt of Buffalo grew two acres of pumpkins last year but kept his patch smaller this year because its location moved and he wanted to irrigate it with little difficulty. Still, he said a drought in 1988 was much worse.

"It was pretty rough back then," he said.

Growers and livestock producers say there are no tricks for preparing for the next big dry spell. Just keep the water nearby.

"You're not going to outwit Mother Nature," Richmond said. "You've just got to learn to roll with what she throws at you."

Diversification may be one answer.

When Halloween approaches at Alan Gibson's small, pick-your-own orchard in Harpers Ferry, he'll target the younger audience by adding a haunted house, a nighttime corn maze and extended hours for hay rides.

"That will help make up for whatever loss we might sustain this year," he said.

 


Tags: agriculture disasters drought news summer weather West Virginia