Drought drags agricultural economy down

John Christensen
A seriously drought stressed corn field near Potter will not yield the crop this farmer had envisioned this spring.

Ask any farmer about farming and very soon, the conversation will turn to the weather. Largely, the success or failure of all their work is ultimately held hostage by Mother Nature. Every year and season presents anxiety for those responsible for the largest single sector of the New York State’s economy. And 2016 is giving them plenty to worry about.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Regional Climate Center, Penn Yan is among the driest spots in New York State this summer. In the period between June 1 and July 10, Penn Yan received just 0.64 inches of rain. Only Trumansburg, with just 0.43 inches was reported drier. Most of the Finger Lakes Region, along with a large part of Western New York, is now classified as having “Severe Drought” conditions.

Nancy Glazier, Small Farm & Field Crop Specialist at Yates County Cooperative Extension says, “Forages are not regrowing at this time. This includes pastures and hay fields. Many farmers are removing livestock from pastures and feeding hay. This will require more feed to get through until next spring.” Glazier adds that corn for silage and grain have already suffered and even with adequate rain the remainder of the season, will have lower yields. “Soybeans will also have reduced yields, if they survive,” says Glazier.

Local crop farmer Dale Hallings says, “We’re in uncharted territory in my 30 years experience, being this dry this early.” He reports first cutting of hay was less than average, second cutting was far less, and third cutting is non-existent. “We’re at less than half for total hay,” says Hallings. Without considerable and steady rain, he also fears corn will yield as little as 50 bushels per acre, versus more than 170 bushels per acre in a normal year. Depending on level of coverage, crop insurance can keep farmers from going under in a bad year, he says; but in his experience, few of his Mennonite neighbors participate in the crop insurance program.

CCE Vegetable Specialist Judson Reid paints a similar picture for truck farmers. “Lack of moisture causes Blossom End Rot in several vegetables such as tomato, pepper, eggplant and vine crops. This makes the fruit unmarketable, and will decrease yields, in addition to lower yields overall of healthy fruit.” Reid says the farms that are irrigating will harvest successful crops, but with higher input costs compared to a normal year, their profit margins will be decreased.

Hans Walter-Peterson, Viticulture Specialist at CCE, says, “Water stress at this point in the year mainly impacts vines with limited root systems, so the biggest impacts we’re seeing right now are in 1 to 2-year-old vineyards and vineyards planted on shallow soils. He says the mature vinifera and hybrid vineyards that are more than 5-years-old or thereabouts, have larger and deeper root systems, “And for the most part are showing little in the way of water stress right now.” However, native varieties like Concord, Niagara, Catawba have relatively shallow root systems, and some of these vineyards are starting to show signs of stress. “The main impacts that drought has at this time of year is reduced shoot growth and smaller berry size, which will impact growers’ yields,” says Walter-Peterson. “If drought conditions continue in August and September, we will probably see more serious impacts to ripening and the quality of this year’s grape crop,” including sugar content, color, flavor, and tannin development.

Both Reid and Glazier say one to two inches of rain per week for the next month or two would improve the surviving crops’ quality, but much of the damage in lost yield cannot be reversed. Walter-Peterson says vineyards could do with less rain than other crops. “About one half inch per week would be plenty for most growers, but in a few small areas it may be too late to recover any kind of crop this year.”

Not everything about a hot-dry summer is bad, though. Glazier says the wheat and barley crops have shown excellent quality and yield, both in the grain and straw. Walter-Peterson says, “Reduced disease pressure is one of the biggest benefits from a grower’s standpoint. Vines will produce shorter shoots and smaller berries because water stress reduces photosynthesis, which provides the plants’ fuel for growth. This may actually be a good thing (in moderation, of course) as many vineyards often have too much shoot growth, and larger berries are more prone to causing tight clusters, which are prone to rot if we get a lot of rain near harvest.”

The Northeast Regional Climate Center reports that 19 of the Northeast’s 35 major climate sites were drier than normal in the last quarter, with four ranking the first half of July 2016 among their top 20 driest. Central and Western New York, northern Pennsylvania, southern New Hampshire, and parts of Massachusetts have seen less than 50 percent their normal rainfall. Predictions for the rest of the season are for continued higher than normal temperatures and lower than normal precipitation.

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