Drought, heat causing produce shortages for some farmers

DUNDAS—Forget the drought; it’s this summer’s record-setting heat that’s causing problems for some Virginia produce growers.

"I can’t fight the heat and the drought," said Walter Thompson, a Lunenburg County grower. "I’m irrigating daily. I’m alright for the moment. The last few weeks I’ve been watering constantly, but I can’t water my way out of the heat."

Thompson said when it gets as hot as it has been this June and July, plants don’t blossom, sweet corn doesn’t fully pollinate, and cantaloupes and watermelons often get scalded in the field. While some buyers will buy less-than-perfect fruit at a farmers’ market or roadside stand, he said, others will not.

"I’ve been in stores before where I’ve seen fruit with a sunburn," Thompson said. "I delivered some cantaloupe a few weeks ago and saw some fruit that had been sun-scalded. I told them my fruit had SPF 55 sunscreen on them; that’s why they still looked good."

While some produce growers are struggling, others report they still have water supplies. Jay Yankey of Prince William County, who chairs the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers Committee, said his farm has gotten 5 inches of rain in the past few weeks from thunderstorms. His ponds are full again, and he’s irrigating only the plants he’s raising on plastic.

"It’s like it always is in the summer; places that have been getting thunderstorms tend to get all of them, and those that are missed are looking pretty bad," Yankey said.

The drought still has a tight grip on Virginia farmers, according to the weekly crop-weather survey conducted by the Virginia office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. As of July 25, there was not enough topsoil moisture for crops across 88 percent of the commonwealth. Many crop observers already are reporting their localities will be declaring a drought disaster, that their corn crops are destroyed and that cattle producers are feeding hay that was supposed to be saved for winter.

However, there is still hope for other field crops if timely rains come.

"Good rainfall now will help us save the peanut, tobacco, soybean and cotton crops," reported Kelvin Wells, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Sussex County.

In Caroline County, "we received some much-needed rain showers last week that brought temporary relief to the soybean crop," wrote Extension agent McGann Saphir. "The soybean canopy has filled out better, but fields are weeks behind normal development stage. Most beans are not yet blooming."

Contact Thompson at 434-298-7107, Yankey at 703-618-3782 or Norm Hyde, VFBF senior video producer, at 804-290-1146.

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