80-year-old farmer says 'this is worst drought I ever saw'

August 11, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • Corn along Md. 63 near Huyetts Crossroads is dead on the stalk because of this summer's high temperatures and lack of rain.
Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

This summer's dry skies and excessive heat have combined to create conditions that one local farmer said are unlike anything he can recall.

"I think this is the worst drought I ever saw, and I'll be 80 years old in a couple days," said Roy Byers, whose family owns a dairy farm and orchard off Downsville Pike.

The Interagency Drought Information Center has categorized conditions as a "severe drought" in Washington County and the eastern half of West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, according to a drought information statement from the National Weather Service.

The conditions are the result of Bermuda high pressure that has kept a dry weather pattern across the area since the beginning of June, the NWS statement said.

According to, the website of Hagerstown weather observer Greg Keefer, the city received 1.61 inches of rain in June, 1.53 inches in July and .01 inches in August as of Wednesday afternoon, for a summer total of 3.15 inches.


The driest summer on record in Hagerstown was 1966, with a three-month precipitation total of 4.48 inches, Keefer's records show. A normal summer precipitation total is 10.48 inches, his site says.

Byers said he bought his farm in 1959 and remembers a series of bad droughts from 1961 to 1966, but those started later in the season and corn stalks had some green on them, Byers said.

"This year, everything's going to be just fodder feed for cattle," he said, explaining that the drought's early start in June prevented corn from pollinating.

Jeff Semler, extension educator with the University of Maryland's agricultural extension office on Sharpsburg Pike, called the combination of heat and dry weather a "double whammy."

Summer crops like corn can withstand heat, but not the dryness that this summer's heat has exacerbated, Semler said.

"Any moisture we do get is followed by such heat that it dries out almost as fast as we get it," he said.

As a result of the drought, farmers have had to harvest corn solids earlier than usual and the crop, which is chopped and preserved for livestock feed, is yielding lower quantities as well as lower quality, Semler said.

Corn solids typically yield more than 20 tons per acre, but a typical yield this year has been 6 tons to 8 tons per acre, he said.

As a result, farmers are likely to need to buy feed and to add supplements to the feed they do harvest to improve its nutritional qualities, he said.

Buying that extra feed will hurt farmers financially, particularly coming on the heels of last year's low milk prices.

"It's going to affect everybody's bottom line, whether it's adding to debt or taking away profit," Semler said.

Byers said not only would his family's farm have to buy grain this year that is normally raised on the farm, but electricity bills would be higher because of the number of fans running to help keep cattle cool and the cold storage that has been needed for fruit.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Semler said he had just gotten off the phone from a 45-minute conversation with a farmer about how to get through the drought.

"We've had droughts before and we've always coped with droughts, but it's always good to try to bounce ideas," he said.

Semler said many farmers plan to plant oats, a fast-growing crop that, if planted in August, can be harvested for feed before winter sets in. Rather than be harvested for grain, the oats will be harvested for forage, which means the crops will be mowed like a lawn and the leafy part used as feed for animals to supplement the poor corn harvests, he said.

"My prediction is there's going to be more oats planted in Washington County this fall than probably has been planted since the turn of the century," Semler said, referring to 1899-1900.

The dry weather also will affect fruit production, yielding fewer and smaller apples and peaches, and less sweet corn, among other crops, Semler said.

"People have probably already noticed there's less of everything," he said.

Some rain might be on the way over the next week, National Weather Service meteorologist Jared Klein said Wednesday.

A chance of showers or thunderstorms is in the forecast for the Hagerstown area "pretty much every day" from Thursday into the middle part of next week, Klein said.

Semler said scattered showers might do some good, but their effects probably will be noticed only in the spots where water drains or pools.

"We need rain to come in and set in and rain. I'm talking days at a time, at this point," he said.

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