Abnormally dry conditions local impact agriculture

Aug. 13—Newton Twp. farmer Keith Eckel is hoping for rain.

After a wet spring pushed back his planting season, unusually dry conditions now threaten the crops he grows in Lackawanna, Lucerne and Wyoming counties. That includes his Lackawanna County sweet corn crop, which Eckel fears could yield less than half as much corn than average because of the weather.

“It has just stopped raining,” he said. “Particularly where I’m located here, west of Clarks Summit a little bit, we just have not had hardly any rain at all in July.”

Data from the National Integrated Drought Information System shows about 72% of Lackawanna County, 99% of Luzerne County and all of Wyoming County are experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Last month was the 14th driest July of the past 128 years in Lackawanna County, and the 13th driest in Luzerne County over the same period.

And while no portion of the population in any of the three counties is currently affected by drought, according to the NIDIS, Eckel said the impact of dry conditions on agriculture has been far-reaching. He noted hay as one example.

“You can talk to any farmers in the area, they’re going to tell you the same thing,” he said. “They had a pretty good first cutting of hay, but their second and third cuttings are literally nonexistent.”

The lack of rain has forced Pallman Farms in the Abingtons to irrigate their strawberry plants basically weekly since the picking season closed July 3.

It’s a costly process that’s depleted the farm’s water source significantly, but necessary amid dry conditions to help ensure a successful berry crop next year, partner Craig Pallman said.

“There’s years where I won’t irrigate at all — and obviously the irrigation is instrumental because if you don’t have it, you’re dead in the water — but we wouldn’t be irrigating in a normal year,” he said . “It’s labor intensive, so you’ve got a cost there. The pumps are diesel powered, so you have a huge cost there. So obviously we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t have to do it, but right now it’s imperative.”

Eckel noted costs associated with agriculture, from fuel to fertilizer, rose significantly this year. Many farmers now face the prospect of a poorer yield due to the abnormally dry conditions, exacerbating existing financial challenges.

“Economically, I’m very concerned about our farmers,” he said. “Production agriculture doesn’t have large margins … to begin with.”

Third generation farmer Jon Lucas, who farms on about 2,300 acres in Hanover Twp., Huntington Mills, Plymouth and Nanticoke, said extreme heat and lack of rain have put stress on crops and driven him to irrigate more. Ears of sweet corn in corners of fields that can’t be irrigated are smaller, he said.

Lucas is also irrigating fall crops — including pumpkins, gourds and squash — and said the amount he charges customers isn’t covering his costs.

“It costs more to produce than you’re getting out of it,” Lucas said. “We can’t charge enough to cover my costs because people can only pay so much. People are hurting, too. My customers have been with me for a long time and I think about them, too.”

Jill Baer, ​​Penn State Extension master gardener coordinator for Lackawanna and Alfalfa counties, said dry conditions are affecting personal gardens as well. The combination of direct sun, hot weather and a lack of rain can cause soil to dry out quickly, stress plants and stifle growth, she said, noting “some things have taken longer to ripen and mature … because the plants are stressed by the weather conditions.”

It’s also harder for some to do work in their gardens, including watering, when it’s oppressively hot.

“I think typically we in (the) Lucerne and Lackawanna County areas are a little bit spoiled in that sometimes we can go summers where we barely need to water because we’re getting enough regular rain,” she said. “This year, watering takes time.”

In terms of recreation, Lackawanna River Conservation Association Executive Director Bernie McGurl said hot weather and dry conditions have resulted in lower water levels, rendering many rivers and streams unnavigable by kayak.

That includes the Lackwanna, outside of some deeper areas.

“Forget about kayaking on the smaller rivers and streams in Pennsylvania (in) this type of weather,” McGurl said. “It’s just not feasible.”

Denise Allabaugh, staff writer, contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: jhorvath@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9141; @jhorvathTT on Twitter.

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