Crops getting parched on Lower Shore

Heat and lack of rain taking a toll

July 12, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

When Ted Wycall started his organic farm in Salisbury five years ago, scarce rain was not a part of his calculations.

But after surviving a serious drought last year, Wycall and his 200-acre Greenbranch Farm, and his fellow farmers across the Lower Eastern Shore, are battling severe heat and drought again this summer.

"It's a very unpleasant surprise," he said. "Just when you think you've got all the expenses covered, you're seeing the vegetables just wilt down and die. I've tilled [under] probably four or five different vegetable fields because I knew they weren't going to make it due to the lack of water."

The 90-degree heat in Maryland is expected to continue Wednesday, with a predicted high temperature near 92 degrees at BWI-Marshall Airport, and 94 at Salisbury.

Forecasters said a cold front crossing the region Wednesday should knock daytime highs back into the 80s for the rest of the week. However, meteorologists were not very encouraging about rain prospects.

"There's a chance for thunderstorms Friday afternoon, but they're isolated and scattered, at best," said meteorologist Dan Proch, at the National Weather Service's regional forecast office in Wakefield, Va. The chances for showers and storms on the Lower Shore were set at just 30 percent.

Scattered showers is about all the Lower Shore has seen this summer, said Richard Nottingham, the agricultural extension agent in Somerset County.

Overall, he said, "I would rate probably half our corn crop as being somewhat in poor condition. … Soybean plantings have been delayed … a good two weeks waiting for soil moisture. There's no need to plant if there's not enough moisture there to germinate the seed."

Pasture conditions have suffered, too, Nottingham said. And the hay harvest may be off by a third due to the drought.

"I have seen a little improvement over the last week" thanks to some showers, he said. But they've been spotty. "Some have received quite a bit of rain, others nothing."

But farmers need to be optimists, so Nottingham did offer a brighter note. "I think last year was probably worse at this point," he said. And "one good thing is that disease and insect pressure has been light due to the dry weather."

The three counties at the southern end of Maryland's Eastern Shore —Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester — were rated in "severe drought" last week, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map. Salisbury is running a rainfall deficit of almost 9 inches since the first of the year.

It's the northern and easternmost extreme of a swath of punishing drought that stretches from southeastern Arizona, across the Deep South to the southeast Atlantic coast.

By last week, 87 percent of Maryland was rated as at least "abnormally dry," with only Garrett and Allegany counties fully outside the dry zone. Extreme Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore south of the Bay Bridge are in "moderate" drought or worse.

Dry weather on the Lower Shore has taken a toll on residents whose regular jobs were cut by the recession.

"A lot of people who lost their jobs got a lawn mower and went out cutting grass," said extension agent Ginny Rosenkranz. But browning lawns just don't need to be cut.

"People are concerned about it," Rosenkranz said. "They're afraid it's such a bad drought we're going to have water restrictions."

Lower Shore residents say they keep seeing the same pattern on the weather radar: Summer rainstorms cross the bay, only to veer off or evaporate before reaching the Eastern Shore.

That's what Wycall said he saw Monday night. A line of thunderstorms pounded the Western Shore, then moved out over the bay. "We watched the storm just split in half,." He said. "Half went north, half went south."

Any work in the Wycalls' 15 acres of vegetable fields turns up clouds of topsoil if the dirt is not watered first.

"Because we're irrigating all the time, we're doing OK for the most part," he said. "But if we get behind we start seeing water stress." Vegetables wilt and leaves curl.

He's plowed whole vegetable fields under so that he and his wife and their 14 employees could keep up with irrigating the rest. The pumps run non-stop, which has jacked up their electric bill to $800 a month.

In his 175 acres of pasture, rotational grazing — moving their poultry, pigs and cattle from field to field — has eased pressure on the struggling grass and spared them the costs of feed. "If we weren't doing that, we wouldn't have any grass at all," Wycall said. But "the animals are having a tough time. The grass is not as palatable when it burns up like this."

The heat and dry weather have been tough on city residents, too.

State Health Secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein urged Marylanders to look in on family members and neighbors who might not be equipped to cope adequately with the heat.

He recalled the famous heat wave that struck Chicago in 1995, killing 750 people over five days.

"The two biggest predictors [of death] were social isolation and lack of air conditioning," Sharfstein said. "People were hot and confined. People like that need to get to a cooling center or a library or somewhere with air conditioning. That's why it's extremely important to check on your neighbors."

Six Marylanders are reported to have died so far this season from heat-related causes, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The latest, announced Tuesday, was a middle-aged Baltimore man with underlying health issues.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.