Aug 6, 2012
Drought the latest worry for Midwest growers

With headlines dominated by early warmth and spring freezes, growers across parts of the Midwest have yet another concern: Precipitation – or the lack thereof.

On July 5, the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in Lincoln, Neb., stated that “more of the United States is in moderate drought or worse” than at any other time in the last 12 years. At the time, 46.8 percent of the nation’s land area was in various stages of drought, according to NDMC.

According to Jeff Andresen, an Extension educator with Michigan State University, “the magnitude of heat and dryness across southern Michigan and much of the central and eastern Corn Belt region to our south has not been observed since the great drought of 1988.”

In early July, it was so dry in southwest Michigan that birds, searching desperately for moisture, were eating the few immature peaches Paul Friday had left. Friday, a peach grower and breeder, had never seen that before in his 52 years of growing peaches.

Losing most of his peaches to the freezes might not have been such a bad thing after all.

“The drought stress is so acute that many fruit growers, including myself, are saying that we are better off without a crop,” Friday said. “A crop load under these unprecedented conditions would have produced small, poor-quality fruit and put much more stress on the trees.”

Birds also were destroying plastic drip lines in their search for water. Small-fruit and vegetable growers who use trickle irrigation were having a tough time constantly replacing their drip lines, Friday said.

It was extremely dry in Illinois, too, said Chris Doll, an Extension educator with the University of Illinois.

“Naturally, talk continues about the weather,” Doll said in late June. “Now, it is the lack of rain. Two weeks ago, southern Illinois growers reported a 10-inch deficit for 2012, and it has not changed any since then.”

In the southwest corner of the state, Doll measured 0.7 inches of rain during a four-week period from mid-May to mid-June. Non-irrigated plantings of small fruit crops and first-year trees needed water, and older fruit trees weren’t far behind, he said.

“This kind of weather slows uptake of calcium into fruit via the soil solution, so the addition of calcium supplements in cover sprays most likely is needed,” Doll said. “There are cautions about getting accumulations of too much calcium chloride on leaves to the point of causing some injury. I’ve only seen that a couple of times during extended droughts, and perhaps when overdosing did occur.

“Small fruit crops definitely needed supplemental water, and tree fruits on our southern Illinois heavier soils were drawing from the subsoil,” Doll said. “I feel that the ripening peach crop will start showing the lack of water before long.”

Southern Indiana was experiencing “terrible drought” in late June, said David Byers, owner of Applacres Orchard in Bedford, Ind.

The lack of moisture wasn’t showing too many effects at the time, but Byers worried about the long-term health of his fruit trees.

“If it doesn’t rain soon, we’re all in trouble,” he said.

What caused the drought?

A stalled frontal across the Gulf Coast and a series of Pacific storm systems produced unseasonably heavy rains in the Southeast and Northwest, while dry and warm weather in the Midwest accelerated drought conditions from Colorado to Indiana, according to NDMC.

Even with periods of heavy rainfall occurring sporadically in mid-June, widespread deterioration of crops occurred due to the continued subnormal precipitation, increased temperatures and high moisture demand for the emerging crops, according to NDMC.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor





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