ANNAPOLIS – Tree farmer Paul Stiffler says that if you look at the 18 acres of Douglas firs, blue spruces, Norway spruces, white pines and Canaan firs at his Frostee Tree Farm in Perry Hall, you might not be aware that Maryland is in the grip of a drought.
But you would definitely know if you got a look at his next water bill. Stiffler credits vigilant irrigation for making sure his Christmas business is not ruined. So far, he has lost only about 100 of the some 10,000 trees on his farm. On the weekends, he just lets his sprinklers run continuously. “If I weren’t watering, it would be terrible,” he said.
This past September was the driest in 111 years, according to the National Weather Service, and the eight hottest. Although rain is expected later this week, it is not expected to be enough to break the drought.
Some farmers have struggled to cope – irrigating, rearranging their planting schedules and supplementing the pastures their livestock usually feed on this time of year with hay. Others have found a blessing in the scarce rainfall.
Stiffler’s farm is among those that canceled fall planting. Instead of transplanting fragile seedlings now, he will wait until spring. “When the ground is this dry, there’s no point,” he said.
Joan Boniface, co-owner of Bonita Farm in Darlington, said her horse farm has also been hurt by the lack of rainfall. She said the pastures that usually provide a source of food for the 150 to 200 thoroughbreds her farm cares for are all but useless now. “When it’s this dry, there’s nothing but weeds,” she said.
To make up the difference, she has been supplementing the horses’ diet with hay, adding an extra $100 to $200 weekly to the farm’s operating expenses.
Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, said the soybean growers have been hit hard by the drought, and she expects their yields to be very poor.
But the corn growers have found a silver lining. Their crop is coming in very dry, saving the farmers some of the energy costs usually required to prepare the corn for market.
Hoot said the biggest issue for grain farmers right now is figuring out when to plant their late crops, including the cover crops the state is encouraging them to plant to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Planting anything now would be futile, she said. “The ground is like concrete,” she said. “What we need is a nice, gentle rain.”
Guy Moore, president of the Maryland Vegetable Growers Association, said successful vegetable and fruit farmers in the area have irrigation systems, but a drought like this can strain the trickle systems many farmers rely on. “The evaporation tends to outrun the trickle.”
“You irrigate what you can,” said Moore, who farms 280 acres in Howard County. “What you can’t, you just throw your hands up.”
But some Maryland farmers were throwing their hands up for a different reason: joy. The unseasonably dry weather has been a gift to the state’s grape growers. Joseph A. Fiola, a Maryland Cooperative Extension agent who specializes in viticulture and small fruit, said the hot, dry conditions created “a rare opportunity” for the wineries. Grape vines are rooted very deeply and do not need a lot of water at the end of the season to thrive, he said. In fact, the lack of water makes them tastier by concentrating the sugars and other flavors. “The grapes are loving this weather.” –