DROUGHT

A pond off Sandy Hook Road in Strasburg shows the dry conditions throughout the area.

TOMS BROOK – Moderate drought conditions are playing with farmers' heads and could end up hurting local pocketbooks. It also may disappoint leaf-peepers looking for colorful foliage.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a drought advisory watch for the state on Friday, pointing to dry conditions since July. Northam released the advisory after the parched valley received a sprinkling of rain earlier in the week, highlighting the need for wetter weather.

Northam stopped short of sounding the alarm on a need to curb water usage but told Virginians they should be ready to change course soon.

“A drought watch is intended to increase awareness of current conditions that are likely to precede a significant drought event,” the release states. “Localities, water suppliers, self-supplied water users, and all citizens are encouraged [to] begin preparations for a potential drought.”

While moderate drought conditions are creating tight windows for farmers to get cover crops in the ground or miss out on cost-sharing dollars, they are also overturning crop forecasts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture crop report on Oct. 1 showed a scattering of forecasts for Virginia and U.S. goods rising and falling compared to 2018.

Virginia cotton and corn farmers are preparing for good news this year. Their production is forecast to increase by 17% and 22% respectively from the previous year crop output.

Soybean and peanut farmers fare worse as their production is forecast to fall 14% and 2%.

Tobacco farmers are splitting the difference depending on whether they have flue-cured, dark-cured or Burley tobacco. Flue-cured tobacco production is forecast to decrease by 29% while dark-cured production is increasing by 23% from 2018. Burley tobacco production is forecast to drop 16% from last year.

The lack of rain helped speed up the harvesting schedule, the report states, but longer-term effects are still to be seen.

“As of October 1, the majority of the state was in moderate drought conditions,” said Herman Ellison, Virginia state statistician. “There are reports that the drought condition has stressed the crops and soil moisture has taken a severe hit. By the end of September, the progress of harvesting the crops was well ahead of normal due to the dry field conditions.”

The moderate drought could also affect a major tourism draw for the region.

Campgrounds at Shenandoah National Park are booked for the month, aside from a handful of first-come, first-serve sites, according to the park’s website.

Every autumn, visitors flock to the 100-mile-long park to catch a glimpse of the trees turning. Although it is impossible to predict a time for peak color change, the park posts updates on its website and social media pages every Thursday to give visitors an idea of what they can expect.

There is also a live stream of the park with constant updates on the status of the color of leaves.

Lynne Phillips, the owner of the Natural Art Garden Center in Toms Brook, said leaves changing color may not happen until late October and even then it might be a drastic change and drop rather than the gradual fade-to-gold leaf peepers come looking for.

“Usually, about right now we should start seeing some color,” Phillips said. “You’re not seeing it.”

September offered good dry conditions for farmers to get their crops off the ground but it hurt suppliers for Phillips who couldn’t start seeding and pulling the plants she sells at her store, she said.

“There isn’t predictability like there used to be,” Phillips said. “If you would have talked to me five years ago, I could have said, ‘this is what’s going to happen.’ But we don’t have that. We don’t have the opportunity.”

For more information about the fall colors in the national park, visit www.nps.gov/shen/learn/news/2019-fall-color.htm

Contact Max Thornberry at mthornberry@nvdaily.com