“In 35 years of farming grain crops I’ve never been hit this hard by heat and drought — it’s the worst I’ve seen,” says Hannover County, Va., grower Wayne Kirby.

Growers from the Florida Panhandle to the Northern Neck of Virginia echo the Virginia grower’s sentiments. For pockets of farmers throughout the upper Southeast, 2010 wiped out much of the economic gain they made with the two previous years of good crops.

“We knew we would get maybe 10 bushels of corn per acre, but we went ahead and got what we could, thinking we could settle up with the crop insurance folks later. Otherwise, in our area, the drought is so widespread, it would be well into next year before we get paid — there will just be too many claims to handle,” Kirby says.

Start over next year

Far from being down and out about drought losses, Kirby, who is past president of the Virginia Grain Growers Association, says, “We will just do the best we can and start over next year.” Again, Kirby shares the sentiments of most Southeast growers devastated by the heat and drought.

At harvest time soybean growers in the Southeast will likely encounter another heat-related problem. At 95 degrees F, soybean plants shed blooms. Virtually all soybean acres in the upper Southeast have been subjected to multiple days above 95 degrees and most have had multiple days above 100 degrees.

The result on soybeans will be to essentially produce two crops as the soybean plant replaces the lost blooms with new ones. The uneven crop will provide a big challenge to growers as to when to combine their beans.

Ron Heiniger, North Carolina State corn specialist and unofficial meteorologist for many farmers in eastern North Carolina’s Blacklands, says the damage to corn in the Tar Heel state is severe, but not unexpected.

El Niño typically comes in wet and cold and leaves hot and dry. Historically the back end of these El Niño weather patterns convert to a La Niña pattern and are devastating for Southeastern corn production and crop production in general, he explains.

The heat has been fairly uniform across the upper Southeast, but not the drought. Some areas have had adequate, even too much rain in some cases.

South Carolina peanut specialist Jay Chapin says the peanut production belt in South Carolina has been blessed with ample rainfall so far. The intense day and nighttime heat may create some problems for growers, but compared to corn in South Carolina, peanuts have been little affected by the adverse weather, the Clemson specialist says.

Heat took toll

Farmers with irrigation typically produced a fair corn crop, but nothing close to the 200 bushel per acre range that was common the past two years. The record heat that came with the April to August drought took a toll on any crop, or any person, that stayed in it too long.

Along with the drought has come record-breaking heat. In Suffolk, Va., a day in late July topped out at 106 degrees F. — that’s five degrees higher than the then record high temperature. The Raleigh, N.C., area had 8 consecutive days of 100 degree heat and nighttime temperatures that averaged more than 82 degrees.

This level of heat and drought forced the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council to issue a drought advisory warning that existed well into August.

The ridge area of South Carolina, heart of the state’s peach industry, hasn’t fared much better. Perhaps York County, S.C., peach grower Arthur Black explains the economic impact of the drought best. He says, “Let me put this into perspective, a gallon of gas costs $2.50, and bottled water costs 69 cents a pint — water costs me more than gas." The South Carolina peach grower says he has moved to several alternative sites from which to pump water — all of which cost money.

The upper Southeast drought warning extended into mid-August. As of Aug. 15, 35 percent of Virginia was classified as in moderate to severe drought; 21 percent in North Carolina and 11 percent in South Carolina.

Virginia farmer Wayne Kirby says the heat as much as the drought has affected his corn and soybean crops. “Our double-crop soybeans in particular came up and are just sitting there. Unless we get some rain in August, we won’t have much of a crop,” he says.     

In the Middle Peninsula of Virginia, Roxbury, Va., grower Jon (Chub) Black says his cotton crop hasn’t fared too well in the heat and drought, though cotton typically weathers both conditions better than grain crops.

Black is one of a handful of cotton growers who produce the crop in a strict no-till system. While his long-term no-till land historically holds water better than tilled land, the heat and the lack of water have taken a toll. In early August Black walked through his cotton, which is about knee-high. “We’re saving lots of money on growth regulators this year, he quiped. Typically, he says, by August he has applied two or three applications of a growth regulator to slow down the cotton plants. Despite the growth regulating chemicals, by early August his cotton is typically waist-high or taller.      

High nighttime temperatures

Clemson University cotton specialist Mike Jones says even areas that got adequate rainfall may not make as much cotton as they think. The nighttime temperatures don’t give the plant a chance to recover from the daytime heat. The plant expends huge amounts of energy coping with daytime heat and typically rests as night time temperatures cool. With nighttime temperatures often in the mid-80s for days at a time, cotton plants keep on burning carbohydrates, rather than using this energy to set and develop bolls.        

“Our cotton is heavily fruited, but severely stunted. If we get rain and some moderation in the high temperatures we could still make a bale per acre cotton — maybe a little better. That’s not good, but without the rain, it’s going to be a lot worse,” Black predicts.                 

In Southeastern, Va., and across the border into North Carolina peanut production is at risk.    

Though they require as much or more water than other crops, peanuts have a way of hunkering down to wait for the moisture to come. Even if rains come and pods develop, it will be tough for peanut growers to accurately time harvest.    

Combined with the need for good harvest weather — the outlook for most peanut growers is justifiably guarded. The heat and drought have taken a toll on crops, but likewise it has, and is, taking a big toll on agricultural research.

At the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Suffolk, Va., a pond that has been there as long as anyone can remember was pumped dry, creating a significant negative effect on on-going research projects.     

Innovative researchers were able to use swine lagoon water, but by early August that too was gone, leaving few options for growing much-needed research crops.      

Hopefully, Southeastern growers have seen the last of El Niño for a while. Dubbed ‘Little Boy’ in the Southern Hemisphere, the oft-occurring weather pattern created huge problems in the Southeast in the winter and spring with record floods and snowfall.  Ironically, the winter rains produced such an excess of water that most areas currently in a drought situation actually have fairly normal total rainfall amounts for the year.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com