The Green Scene

Corn and tomatoes are both water hogs on the farm. But in North Carolina’s continuing drought, the first crop suffered heavy losses for the second consecutive year, while the latter prospered. That’s the nature of farming, perhaps, but at least for some growers hit hard by the drought, help may come not from rain but in the form of emergency loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Others may do what many farmers do, and tough it out.

This fall, grain-corn yields hit a 10-year low in the state, prompting the USDA and Gov. Mike Easley to declare 59 counties as disaster areas “due to drought-related crop damage.” Most of Western North Carolina, including Buncombe, falls within the disaster zone, and another 39 other counties were tacked on because of federal rules regarding contiguous counties—adding up to 98 of the state’s 100 counties.

Corn happens to be one of the hardest-hit crops, but soybeans, tobacco, hay, pasture/forage crops and beans also saw reduced yields in N.C. in both 2007 and 2008, says Natalia Sanchez, statistician for the state branch of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

According to the data, October corn yields were about 40 percent lower than last year, when they were already below-average due to drought. “Corn was most affected, [because] right when it was tasseling, the rains didn’t come,” Sanchez reports. Other crops fared better this season; soybeans, for example, bounced back to near-record yields after falling well below the 10-year average in 2007.

The story in Buncombe and much of WNC is mixed, too. “Most of our growers did OK, because they were able to use irrigation, wells and streams,” says Susan Colucci, a small-crops agent with the Buncombe County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension. The drought resulted in stunted plants and reduced yields for many crops, particularly corn and—in Henderson County—pole and half-runner beans, she says. Colucci’s focus is small-fruit crops such as raspberries, and many of those growers have turned to irrigation and other water-conservation measures. So have many local tomato growers, she notes, adding that tomato and pepper crops “actually like it when it doesn’t rain too much.”

Asheville organic farmer Michael Porterfield agrees. Irrigated tomatoes suffer much less from disease and pests when there’s little rain, he says. Porterfield owns Gladheart Farms, and most of his 23 varieties of tomatoes prospered this year. “I anticipated [the ongoing drought], and I dug a well late last year,” he reports. “That wasn’t cheap, but I didn’t see being able to run a commercial operation without access to water. If I hadn’t done it, [this year] would have been a disaster.”

That’s not to say that everything was rosy. Irrigation concentrates water at the base of the plant, where it’s most needed. And while his tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce and eggplant thrived, the rest of the garden was a dustbowl at times, says Porterfield. Weeds didn’t grow; cover crops planted between vegetable rows dried up. “But we did a lot of different things, [such as] plastic mulch and green manures that conserve water,” he continues. “That’s what saved us.”

Porterfield noticed something else this season: Conventional tomato growers in Leicester “had to work together to have enough water,” he says. The solution was to stagger their draws from a nearby water source, so everyone would have enough.

Nonetheless, says Porterfield, he “feels bad for those who did poorly. If I hadn’t [taken preventive steps], I would have gone out of business.”

Grower organizations are also keeping an eye on the situation. “The people who the drought has most affected are not produce [growers] but those raising livestock [and] trout farmers,” notes Peter Marks of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “Small-scale growers [like Porterfield] are irrigating. They’re not as dependent on rain as those who need 10 acres of pasture to stay green to feed their livestock, produce hay [or fill] their trout ponds.”

Farside Farms owner Mike Brown says the drought most affected him out in the field. He just squeaked by last year, getting enough hay to feed his 40 head of cattle but not enough to sell, as he usually does. “This year, I had to buy hay for the first time,” says Brown. He also lost some vegetable crops later in the season when his irrigation source—a stream—got too low to provide enough water. That left him facing a tough choice: “Do you use the water on the new stuff coming up or on what’s going to be ready to pick in a week or two?”

Brown chose to save his near-ready crops, such as tomatoes, beans and summer squash. But late-season crops such as winter squash suffered, he says.

Will the emergency-loan program help him?

“I won’t borrow any money, no,” says Brown. “When you’re down and you’re farming, how are you going to pay that back [next year]? If they’re going to do anything, they ought to give [farmers] grants.”

As for next year, Brown laughs his deep, gravelly laugh and says: “I’m the typical farmer. I’ll be right there [in 2009], hoping we have a better year.”
@text:For more information about disaster relief, contact your local Farm Service Agency. In Buncombe County, call 254-0916, ext. 2, or go to www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA.

Send your environmental news to mvwilliams@mountainx.com, or leave a message at 251-1333, ext. 152.

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About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

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