Delaware’s capricious summer weather leaves some areas with drought conditions

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By Andrew Sharp

Parts of Delaware farmland are beginning to suffer drought this summer, but it’s a patchwork. In fact, depending on where you live, you may be thinking, “What drought?” The crops are green and lawns are lush.

Click here for the NOAAA drought map.

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“We haven’t had that regionwide storm that comes in and gives the whole state and the whole peninsula rain at the same time,” Michael Scuse, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, said. Instead, there have been isolated storms. “And so there are pockets of the state where the crops look really, really good.” In other spots, “the crops there are looking really, really bad.”

That’s illustrated on the U.S. drought map maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. About 40 percent of the state is abnormally dry, which is considered the first stage of drought. One swath cuts across southern New Castle County and northern Kent County. Downstate, the eastern side of Sussex County is seeing dry conditions, in a line that almost looks like it was drawn down Route 113. Some of the beach areas are undergoing moderate drought, the next stage up from abnormally dry.

Don Clifton, executive director of the Delaware Farm Bureau, said at his farm in northeastern Sussex they’ve received  enough rain. But he said most years in Delaware, a lot of the rain comes from thunderstorms that might dump an inch of rain on one farm and very little on neighboring land.

As far as the current dry spell, Clifton said Monday he’s been hearing of areas in the state where there hasn’t been any significant rainfall in 20 days or longer. And crops planted in Delaware’s sandy soils need fairly frequent rain, he said.

Delaware is actually on the south side of a more extended and severe drought that extends up into New Jersey and New England. National Weather Service meteorologist Ray Martin said the state is about an inch of rain below its usual level. Further north, farmers have seen 6-7 inches less rain than average, which is severe drought.

That area did get some relief from recent storms.

It does usually get dry in a Delaware summer. Martin said droughts like this are not the most uncommon, but they’re also not frequent.

And although the driest area is eastern Sussex, the conditions affects farmers. People may think of the beaches as mostly housing developments and resort areas, but Martin pointed out that there are actually a fair number of farms in the area.

A lot depends on what happens next. Scuse said it’s too late to do much for corn crops, especially early corn, but “there’s still a great deal of time left if we can get rains in the very near future to make a significant difference on the soybean crop.”

Some rain has been in  the forecast, but it’s mostly thunderstorms.

“Anything is going to help. But to really make a difference, you’re going to need 1 to 2 inches of rain,” Scuse said. As dry as the ground is, he said, a few tenths of an inch will disappear quickly.

Many farmers can now turn to artificial rain. Unlike some rolling farm country further north, Delaware’s flat fields are suitable for irrigation systems, and Scuse said the state has seen a tremendous increase in land under irrigation over the past 15 years.

Clifton said, “I had a farmer tell me just this weekend that his irrigated acreage of corn, he anticipated getting 250 bushels per acre or better. But on the non-irrigated parts, it might be 50 to 75.”

Sometimes fields aren’t large enough or have irregular shapes that make it not cost-effective to irrigate, he said.

Scuse said the state may not yet be dry enough to qualify as a USDA disaster area and trigger loan aid, but with the drought damage he’s seen some areas might be getting close.

Grain prices have dropped since the spring, Clifton said, and at current rates farmers will need to get 150 bushels of corn an acre just to break even.

“I would say that some farmers are facing some critical conditions, if not currently, then on the horizon,” he said.

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