Saturday, August 27, 2011

Area farmers suffer in hot, arid summer

Johnny Howell’s answer was succinct when asked how his 200 acres of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and other produce have fared this summer.

“Lost 50 percent of my crop,” said Howell, who has been farming in southwestern Davidson County for five decades. “Heat and no rain got ’em.”

Other Middle Tennessee farmers share his plight, to varying degrees. This summer’s near-record heat and scant rainfall have combined to shrivel crops, reduce yields and cut into farmers’ livelihoods.

Consumers also will feel the impact, in the form of higher prices at farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

Temperatures in Middle Tennessee have averaged four degrees warmer than normal since June, according to National Weather Service data. Last month was the hottest July in Nashville since 1993 and the fifth-hottest month on record, with temperatures breaking the 90-degree mark on 27 days —10 more than usual.

While such temperatures are typical of Middle Tennessee summers, a hot stretch in July was particularly damaging, agricultural officials said. Overnight heat stunted crop growth and hindered pollination by reducing insect activity, thereby decreasing yields.

“The corn was at a really critical stage when the heat hit,” said DeWayne Perry, Williamson County Extension Service director. “We had those two weeks where we didn’t cool off much at night, and that hurt us.”

Hurting even more has been below-average rainfall since July 1, farmers said.

While the rainfall deficit is less than an inch at the weather service’s official station at Nashville International Airport, farmers in outlying areas say they’ve gotten up to four inches below what’s needed.

Chad Jewell, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer and cattle rancher in Williamson County, said his fields have gotten a half-inch or less of rain since mid-July.

“The beans are starting to dry up, wilt and die,” he said.

At the mercy of a higher power

The arid weather has left nearly two-thirds of Tennessee — including Sumner and Wilson counties, almost all of Davidson County and the western half of Williamson County — “abnormally dry,” according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor index, issued last week. A week before that, less than a third of the state was considered abnormally dry.

There’s little Middle Tennessee farmers can do about the lack of rain, as few have water wells for irrigation. Many also are reluctant to tap ponds, rivers and other surface water bodies during dry spells because of their low water levels.

“We’re at the mercy of the good Lord,” said Brian Sanders, who has grown corn, soybeans and wheat and raises cattle on 1,700 acres, primarily in Williamson County, for more than 30 years.

He said he expects to harvest 30 bushels of soybeans per acre this year, well below the 50 bushels he normally gets. For corn, he planned on 120 to 160 bushels per acre but now expects 80 to 100.

Although corn and soybean prices are well above normal, Sanders said higher growing costs — fertilizer prices have doubled in recent years, for example — will erode his bottom line.

“If I eke out a profit, it will be very small compared to going to a job in town,” he said.

Tennessee’s weather troubles won’t have much impact on retail food prices because the state accounts for a small portion of U.S. food production. But bad weather in major agricultural states such as Illinois, Iowa and Oklahoma will mean higher grocery bills.

Prices for corn, used for everything from animal feed to cereal, has surged by 70 percent a bushel in the past year. That led farmers to plant more corn this spring and less soybeans and wheat, driving up prices for those crops and food in general. And corn prices haven’t dropped despite the larger-than-usual crop because worldwide demand is outpacing supply.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects grocery prices will rise by 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent this year and at least another 3 percent in 2012. That’s on top of a 5.4-percent increase since mid-2010. Restaurant prices are projected to rise by slightly smaller percentages.