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Four-state region felt 'extreme drought' conditions

September 25, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A cluster of counties in eastern West Virginia and neighboring portions of Maryland and Virginia was one of only four areas in the nation that was experiencing "extreme drought" conditions last week, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Dry conditions have exacted a significant toll on the harvest at area orchards and farms, and the forecast into next year isn't promising thanks to a predicted La Nina climate pattern, according to National Drought Mitigation Center climatologist Brian Fuchs.

"The (drought) situation come spring is going to be really interesting to see," Fuchs said Friday.

The effect of La Nina, which is predicted to bring warm and dry conditions to the area through winter and into spring, could compound an already serious precipitation deficit, Fuchs said.

The Drought Monitor data, which is released on a weekly basis through a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Drought Mitigation Center and other partners, shows portions of Alabama, Louisiana and Hawaii also are experiencing "extreme drought" conditions.

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According to Fuchs, reports of drought conditions nationally have been fairly minimal until recently. West Virginia Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Bob Tabb said western areas of the state have had plenty, if not too much, precipitation this year.

On Sept. 7, Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan, Hampshire, Mineral and Hardy counties in West Virginia, plus portions of Allegany and Washington counties in Maryland and Frederick and Shenandoah counties in Virginia, were designated as experiencing extreme drought, according to the Drought Monitor.

High heat, low humidity and wind, coupled with little rainfall since June, has diminished soybean crops and accelerated the harvesting time of what has survived, Tabb said.

"We were picking sweet corn three weeks early," said Tabb, whose family has farmed in Jefferson County for years.

Earlier this month, state officials asked for a federal drought disaster declaration for Berkeley, Morgan, Jefferson, Hampshire, Hardy, Pendleton, Mineral, Grant and Preston counties to qualify the region for U.S. Department of Agriculture assistance programs. Counties have to experience losses of at least 30 percent in at least one major crop to qualify for the declaration.

With little moisture in the topsoil, pastures dried out and some farmers had to begin feeding hay as early as July, Tabb said.

Mike Orr and his brother, Mark, run a large orchard operation near Martinsburg. They expect to harvest fewer and smaller apples than usual this year because of the drought.

While nearly 80 percent of West Virginia's apple crop was described as "poor" or "very poor" in the USDA's crop-weather bulletin last week, Orr attributed the survival of their orchard's harvest to the soil, which he said holds water a little better.

"The apples probably taste as good as they ever have," Orr said.

Orr said they are learning about the impact of stink bugs and how to cope with them, but noted that other infestations have been kept at bay by the dry conditions, and the skin of the fruit is particularly appealing this year.

With crops already withered from the drought, dry conditions have caused deer to move in on farms and gardens to forage, according to Larry Hines, wildlife manager at Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area.

The drought also has been hard on fish in small streams, and the Potomac River has dropped to a level that has made it difficult for fishermen to get their boats in the water, Hines said.

Drought conditions prompted Gov. Joe Manchin earlier this month to issue a ban on outdoor burning in the Eastern Panhandle and Hines said he is primarily worried about open fires and people who smoke as the hunting season approaches.

"Everybody just has to be totally aware of what they're doing," Hines said.

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