Although the growing season for row crops has come to an end, farmers in North Carolina are still facing the impacts of worsening drought conditions.
Corey Davis, the assistant state climatologist at the State Climate Office of North Carolina, says that the drought conditions impacting the state right now began in early October across the western part of the state.
Because it was towards the end of the growing season, Davis says the impacts for farmers haven’t been as bad as they could have been had the drought began in the summer months. “It has still been a fast-developing and intense drought for this time of year,” Davis says, noting that farmers statewide are being affected now, even those that received precipitation during tropical storms Idalia and Ophelia from August and September.
The latest drought monitor map for North Carolina shows that 5% of the state is in D3 extreme drought. Twenty-seven percent of North Carolina is in D2 severe drought, 39% is in D1 moderate drought, and 22% is abnormally dry. Just over 6% of the state reports no drought stress.
Davis says that the dry weather, which typically can benefit farmers during harvest, “has been a big hindrance,” causing some farmers in Surry and Yadkin counties to pause harvesting their soybeans. This is because moisture levels in soybeans are so low that farmers are worried about pods shattering during harvest, Davis says.
The Pasquotank County Extension reported to the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council for the week of Nov. 13 that farmers were only harvesting about 20 bushels per acre (bpa) of soybeans this year. Davis says Pasquotank County has been fighting drought on-and-off throughout the growing season.
Aside from soybeans, Davis says that cotton crops in the eastern part of the state have also seen impacts from the drought conditions. He says that some cotton fields haven’t even formed bolls yet.
Christmas tree farmers are also seeing the effects of the dry weather, Davis says. He notes that farmers have shared that Christmas trees in the mountains are showing some signs of drought stress.
The dry weather has also left North Carolina’s pastures and hay fields in rough shape, Davis says. “We have heard that farmers in Ashe and Macon counties, and probably many of the mountain counties in between, are feeding hay four to six weeks earlier than normal,” Davis says.
When it comes to winter crops, Davis says that low soil moisture has caused farmers to be unable to plant their small grains. For those that have gotten grain crops planted, Davis says that “they’re showing limited growth so far.”
The USDA Crop Progress report for North Carolina for the week ending Nov. 12 shows that topsoil moisture supplies rated 37% very short, 38% short, 24% adequate, and 1% surplus. Subsoil moisture supplies rated 28% very short, 41% short, 30% adequate, and 1% surplus.
While soil moisture supplies are low right now, Davis says “we do have decently high confidence of getting wetter weather this winter because of the El Niño pattern in place at the moment.”
Because nine of the past 12 El Niño winters have shared similar patterns, Davis says the expectation is that it will be a wetter than normal winter for North Carolina. Even if the state only receives an average amount of precipitation this winter, Davis says it will “bring a nice recharge to soil moisture levels and irrigation ponds that have been getting dry over the past few weeks and months.”
Even though the El Niño pattern is expected to bring additional moisture to North Carolina, Davis says he still expects some drought conditions to linger into the spring. “The bone-dry weather we’ve had this fall has helped some sizable precipitation deficits build up,” Davis says, “and it will take some time, and multiple, good soaking rain events to fully erase those.”