Mild winter could leave farmers high and dry this spring

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CHARLOTTESVILLE—A warm, dry winter already had affected many Virginia farmers this spring. The worst could be yet to come if the state does not get adequate rain, according to Jerry Stenger, director of the Virginia State Office of Climatology.

Warm temperatures in February allowed some fruit trees and winter crops to advance ahead of their normal schedule, only to risk major frost damage weeks later. On March 23 the U.S. Department of Agriculture drought monitor identified a wide swath of Virginia as being in a moderate drought. Drought conditions were found in Northern Virginia and the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, reaching south to the North Carolina line.

 “We’ve been in a pattern this winter where the storms have tracked from our west and up into the Northeast and dragged drier air into (Virginia),” Stenger explained. “The little bit of snow we got in March from a coastal storm is an example of the type of rain systems we really need right away. We’re hopeful that was a harbinger of a change in storm patterns. We are rapidly getting close to the end of cold weather, and if we don’t get substantial rainfall before the growing season starts in earnest, the outlook is not good at all.”

Stenger noted that if groundwater reserves aren’t replenished before plants and trees start drawing heavily on them, even regular rainfall won’t be enough to resupply them. That could lead to dry wells and farm ponds and even pose a risk to some community water sources.

The most recent crop weather report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service echoes those concerns. Rainfall amounts have been below average all winter, with shortfalls of almost 4 inches in Lynchburg, Roanoke and Washington and almost 3 inches below normal in Richmond and Norfolk. Farmers and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialists statewide are voicing concerns that, although pastures are greening up, plant growth is already slowing due to a lack of moisture.

“Until that rain in mid-March, I knew some producers who had been eight weeks without any measurable precipitation,” noted Robert Harper, grain marketing manager for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “You would think grass growth and pasture conditions would be further ahead now because of our warmer weather in February. But the grass is not doing so well because of a lack of moisture.”

At the same time, the dry winter has been a mixed blessing, Harper said. A year ago it was so muddy that row crop producers couldn’t get their tractors into fields. Now most of them have finished preparations for spring planting ahead of schedule.

“There’s no mud on their tractor tires; nobody got stuck in the fields this year,” Harper said. “And if producers are no-till farmers, many of them have been able to drill deep in the soil for the first time in many years.”

Media: Contact Stenger at 434-924-0548, Harper at 804-290-1105 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.

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