JIM KRENCIK and DEBRA J. GROOM
Empire Farm & Dairy
It’s not raining.
|Drought map as of early August|
“Many areas of the state are in a severe drought,” said Aaron Reynolds, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo. “The precipitation has been real spotty in nature. And that is producing stress in the crops.”
According to a map put out by the National Weather Service, the worst of the drought is in Western New York. The map shows a severe drought area along the Southern Tier from Binghamton west, the Finger Lakes region, the Suffolk County area of Long Island and most of Western New York.
Patches of the Hudson Valley, Nassau County on Long Island and most of Central New York, such as Onondaga, Oswego and Jefferson counties, are in a moderate drought. The north country is deemed “abnormally dry.”
It doesn’t seem the weather will get any better any time soon.
Though rain is forecasted for short periods, it’s going to take a lot more than that to break the drought. And even then, the damage has been done to many of Western New York’s farms.
Some farmers are fighting a two-front war as the drought worsens — with one problem not as obvious as the other.
Most obviously, the lack of water is hurting the crop harvest. Yields are way down as plants are struggling to grow. By this time of year, corn stalks should be above your head, but this year’s crop is topping out at about two feet high. And it’s not like the corn is behind schedule — it’s just done growing.
John Starowitz of Starowitz Farms in Byron, Genesee County, said his corn crop has already “tasselled,” meaning the corn is as good as it’s going to get, and it’s barely above your knee.
“When you have crops and vegetables, they all rely on water, and you’ve got to have a certain amount of water,” he said. “When you don’t have water, everything is skimpy and small.”
Jason Turek, who runs the third-largest vegetable farm in the state — Turek Farm near King Ferry in Cayuga County — grows 4,000 acres of vegetables that are sold throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states. Of that, 2,500 acres are sweet corn.
He said he is harvesting only about a quarter of each field in early harvest vegetables, like corn and green beans. “It is hurting us — we’re in denial,” he said.
He said his corn is “hurt for sure” and by now, he should have cut 20,000 boxes of cabbage for shipment. He’s cut 1,000 boxes.
Ironically, his farm is spread out along the shore of Cayuga Lake.
He’s lacking water but there’s a whole lake nearby.
But Turek said it really doesn’t make any difference. If he could draw water from the lake, he would be allowed by regulation to take only 100,000 gallons a day. He said he needs 65 million gallons to water his entire farm.
“It’s like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose,” he said.
The drought is bringing on another problem that might not be as obvious, too: pests.
Pests are attracted to moisture, and the only things with any semblance of it are the crops, even though they’re struggling themselves.
Starowitz said the bugs, deer and woodchucks are all causing damage to his crop, worse this year than past years because of the drought. The pests are “clearing out anything that’s green,” he said.
He hasn’t completely given up hope yet, though. He said there might be enough crop to sell to buyers, but he’s not expecting to make any money on it.
“Basically we’re just riding the storm out, we’re going with the punches,” Starowitz said. “There’s always hope.”
While some crops suffer in the drought, others are doing well.
Onions seem to be coming through the drought OK, said Christy Hoepting, Cornell Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist.
“One of the benefits of it being hot and dry, and so breezy, is that we don’t have very much disease pressure,” Hoepting said. “The disease pressure is what can really be ravaging. There are a couple diseases that get going when it is cool and wet, so we don’t have to worry about any of those. The biggest pest concern is onion thrips, which do very well in the heat.”
However, onions — which prefer moderate temperatures — will grow quicker, and may not reach their full-size potential, especially in ground which hasn’t been irrigated. Still, Hoepting believes this season’s yields will be “pretty good.”
“Our (onion) quality should be excellent,” she said, explaining without the diseases to contend with, onions can produce crop of higher worth. “Quality is usually excellent in a hot, dry year at the expense of maximum bulb size.”
Dairy farmers feel the heat
Dairy farmers are having trouble handling the heat, too.
While crop farmers are dealing with the effects of the drought now as they harvest, the season will be over soon and what’s done will be done.
Dairy farming, however, is a 24/7, 365-day operation and can’t necessarily stop because corn and hay crops failed. But the harvests are so low that farmers are looking elsewhere for feed.
“We’re taking a lot of steps to purchase feed,” said Dale Stein of the multi-generational Stein Farms in Le Roy, which has about 1,000 cows on it. He’s taking these steps because his corn harvest is down 60 percent.
“We’re going to be so short (until next harvest),” he said.
Unsurprisingly, this shortage brings on a lot of financial burden.
Stein said this shortage will cost him about $25,000 a month for 12 months until he can harvest again. Many farmers have insurance for situations just like this, as Stein does and has tapped into a little this year, but that doesn’t recoup lost revenue as much as it lightens the debt burden.
For instance, Starowitz said if you have $100,000 in debt because of the drought, insurance might cover $90,000 of that, leaving the farm still in the red.
Stein said dairy farms’ problems are being compounded as well by drought; not only are they paying for feed, but small revenues are being brought in because of the low price of milk.
He added this has him “concerned” and “worried” that the effects of this situation might linger for another two years.
One glimmer of hope in all of this for some dairy farmers is that milk production is relatively stable thanks to technological advancements.
Cows like cooler temperatures and definitely do not like the heat. But since a lot of farms have invested in equipment that regulates the temperature in Western New York’s fickle climate, most cows are none-the-wiser.
“Our cows are kept cool,” Stein said.
Livestock impacted as well
The drought affects farmers in different ways, depending on their crop and what they are raising.
For those who raise livestock, there was no pasture available for animals to graze. While livestock typically graze about six to seven months out of the year, pasture foraging was limited because the season started so dry.
“A lot of livestock producers are now feeding hay, which they would normally feed during the winter,” said Nancy Glazier, small farm specialist on the Northwest Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team for Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Their hay harvest has been lighter than normal, so that’s adding another kind of a wrinkle.
They have to purchase some hay elsewhere.”
While some farmers have been buying hay from their neighbors, others have been going out of the region and out of state to get what they need. She added some farmers even put in alternative feed such as oats or another type of annual grass.
The drought affects the livestock as well; Glazier said the drought and high heat causes more stress.
“Some farms may actually keep their animals in the barns, because it is a little cooler if they don’t have trees available for them in pastures,” she said.
“Farmers are pretty resilient,” Glazier went on. “Every year is a different year. They just have to deal with the hand they are dealt from Mother Nature.”
Other commodities affected by drought
Most people probably wouldn’t think trees would be bothered by a lack of water. Mature trees have deep roots and can draw on underground water for their needs.
But the lack of rain and excessive heat still can stress trees. Christmas tree growers, maple syrup producers and apple growers all are worried about this year’s crop or future crops.
Mary Jeanne Packer, president of the Christmas Tree Growers of New York, said some producers have lost up to half their crop of new trees planted this spring. Each year, growers replace the trees they harvested and sold last holiday season and it’s these young trees that have trouble in a drought.
“Some have set up irrigation,” she said. “Most of the problem is west of Syracuse.”
The loss of young trees won’t affect consumers immediately, but you never know down the road. Packer said if growers lose half of their young trees this summer, they will have to plant double the amount next spring and that damages their bottom lines.
Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, said both apple trees and grape vines are stressed this summer from lack of rain.
With the apples, the drought won’t kill the trees, but it will affect the size of the fruit.
“The apples will be much smaller. They will be good and very sweet because there will be less water in them and more sugar,” he said.
It won’t be good financially for the apple growers either because the drought also will reduce the number of apples on the trees, cutting their yields. He said they shouldn’t have a problem with new trees planted in the spring because most growers irrigate these.
Maple trees won’t die from the drought, said Helen Thomas, executive director of the New York Maple Producers Association.
But, “if the water table is low and continues through the winter, the trees won’t have enough water to make as much sap in the spring,” she said. This means there could be a lot less syrup and other maple goodies next year.
What’s causing record dryness
David Thomas, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo, said the recent summers that could take the silver or bronze medal in the Drought Olympics were 2012, 1995 and 1988.
In all three cases, the past droughts followed particularly dry years, with isolated or widespread droughts across Western New York in the March 1 to July 31 period, that were eased by later summer weather.
“2012 was also dry from spring into the summer,” Thomas said. “It was a little wetter than this year (with rain picking up in the summer). It helped (end) the drought, but we did have a dry period from March to July.”
The National Weather Service monitors droughts via multiple measures, with precipitation at airports an input that Thomas said shows this as the driest summer in 75 years. It’s been a confluence of factors to get here.
In Western New York, multi-year droughts like the one hitting California are prevented by the shear accumulation of snow that provides an annual replenishing of the water table and soil moisture.
Batavia experienced a reprieve from heavy snowfall in 2016 after back-to-back winters that brought blizzards, sustained deep freezes and snow-bound misery, but that wasn’t helpful below ground.
An upper-level wind pattern that frequently blew from the northeast prevented the “no doubters” of Gulf of Mexico-fueled spring rains that commonly add to the precipitation scoreboard.
“We didn’t have a really snowy winter, and that led into a dry spring that really caused the ground to dry out quickly across the region,” Thomas said. “The bright, sunny days through the spring and drier air allowed the drought conditions.”
Even the timing of weather systems hasn’t helped. Cold fronts have generally appeared over Western New York during the more atmospherically stable overnight hours, whereas an afternoon conflict with the daytime heat would lift the formation of clouds and thunderstorms.
“Without the sun’s heat, there’s not as many showers and thunderstorms,” Thomas said.
More than a little rain needed
This far into a drought, the region needs more than a sustained rainfall. Thomas said it will take months of above-normal precipitation to replenish the water table and have lawns, fields and trees recover.
“It won’t be one particular event or a week-long stretch,” he said.
A wayward hurricane ready to unload a flash of rain in Western New York, similar to the late stages of Hurricane Frances in 2004, wouldn’t be the solution. Thomas said a tropical storm would bring an abundance of rainfall, but forecasting one to pass over the region is next to impossible at this point.
And a flood doesn’t “fix” the problems of a drought. It just creates problems of its own.
At Fenton Farms in Batavia, Paul Fenton and his wife Gail have been fortunate to catch a portion of the handful of rain events that have punctuated the worst drought in their 30 years of farming an area between the city and Thruway. But each week the benefit has been weaker.
“It’s just evaporating so fast, the subsoil is absorbing the showers we do get, and with the high temperatures — we have three days of 85 degrees plus this week — the evaporation is just intense,” Fenton said.
“We’re still producing nice stuff where it’s getting water, but the work to produce the product (is unprecedented). We’re irrigating seven days a week.”