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Drought Times

Dry conditions affect local crops.


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The colorful array of fresh fruits and vegetables available at the weekly Memphis Botanic Garden farmers market may not indicate the trouble in the heartland's agricultural sector.

But local farmers tend to agree that dry conditions have indeed affected their crops.

While large farmers throughout the country are losing soy, corn, and hay crops during the drought affecting much of the nation, small farmers' losses vary according to their access to irrigation.

The Department of Agriculture has classified 1,369 counties in more than 31 states as suffering from extreme drought conditions, including Shelby County, Crittenden County in Arkansas, and DeSoto County in Mississippi. Rainfall in the Memphis region is nearly half the annual average.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it, and I've been doing this for 35 years," said Sam Long of Long's Orchards in Covington.

He said the stems of his peaches are drying, and the fruit is prematurely falling. Not only does he worry about this year's loss of production, he fears the lack of water essential for his trees' assimilation of nutrients will decrease the mineral content in the soil necessary for high yields next year.

"They'll be weak going into winter, and they'll be weak coming out of winter," Long said, as he likened the peach trees to a marathon runner. "They need to recuperate and build themselves back up. A tree does the same thing as a person."

The most talked about crop shriveling under the stress of the dry spell is corn. Dolly Gray from Gray's Farm in Mason said her 12-year-old grandson picked up an ear of corn and told her that it should have 13 to 15 rows of kernels by now, but it only had 11. As a farmer who plants corn in intervals to prolong the production season, Gray can no longer start a crop and said the last planting has "burnt up."

"It's sad to see it just kinda dry up. When you walk through the corn, it's like walking through it in October," Gray said.

The farm is cutting the corn that dried in the field to be used for livestock feed. They expect no more fresh corn this year. But Gray said her okra and cotton enjoy the dry heat and are doing well "so it's not all doom and gloom."

Free-range cattle ranchers are especially hard hit as pastures dry out. Many began supplementing with feed in June, a process that usually begins in September. The decrease of the production of corn and hay is resulting in higher feed prices. Wallace Mathis of Mathis Creek Farms in Covington said he will be selling cattle at auction to reduce losses.

However, farmers using drip irrigation reported experiencing few problems, though many said germinating seeds for fall and winter crops poses a challenge as the soil dries out too quickly.

Brandon Pugh of Delta Sol Farms in Procter, Arkansas, said community supported agriculture, which functions under a model of mutual support, helps in a year like this. If a farmer loses a crop, so does the member. But if a farmer does well, the member shares in the benefits. "That's just part of a CSA," he said. "You are supporting a farmer."

While large farmers struggle, Pugh attributes having the best year of his CSA to keeping his operation small and diverse: "I got all these things going on, so hopefully if something goes out with one of them, I can just push forward with another. "

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