For some Pa. farmers, drought worries persist

2012-08-02T12:45:00Z For some Pa. farmers, drought worries persistMARY ANN THOMAS, Valley News Dispatch The Sentinel
August 02, 2012 12:45 pm  • 

TARENTUM, Pa. (AP) - While a drought watch persists in 15 counties in Western Pennsylvania, other parts of the country continue to wither from heat and drought.

The Department of Agriculture has designated just over half of all counties in the country as disaster areas this year, mainly due to drought, according to a statement released on Tuesday by the White House.

Although Pennsylvania farmers don't have the crop losses that prompted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday to expand emergency haying and grazing on about 3.8 million acres of conservation land, they are feeling the heat.

A drought watch — the least serious of drought designations — issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been in effect since July 19. It covers Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Clarion, Crawford, Erie, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset, Venango, Warren and Washington counties. Armstrong and Westmoreland counties are not included.

The watch requires only a voluntary 5 percent reduction in nonessential water use.

Local rainstorms last week may have quenched some parched farmland and brought precipitation levels back to normal, but the dry conditions are not over, according to Susan Weaver, drought coordinator for the DEP.

"The rain may have improved conditions," she said. "However, droughts don't occur overnight, and they don't disappear overnight."

The family-run Goldscheitter Dairy Farm in Clinton and Buffalo townships, Butler County, is taking a lashing from both the local and national weather.

"We are losing money every month shipping milk from a herd of 300 head of cattle," said farm family patriarch Edward Gold-scheitter, 79.

Goldscheitter and his son, William, farm about 1,000 acres for their dairy herd, which always requires a supplemental feed of soybeans and corn to add to what they grow locally.

But this year, prices for that supplemental feed, which comes from other states hard hit by the drought, are 40 percent higher than last year for Goldscheitter.

"We have all the work and the effort and not the profit because of the drought in the West," he said.

"It's a double whammy," he said. "Milk prices are down and the cost for feed is going up. We are using up reserves."

Although last week's rains did not lift the region out of its drought-warning status, it helped Gold-scheitter's alfalfa crop.

"Before the rain last week, we had to wait for it to grow because of the drought," he said.

Goldscheitter is much like other farmers in the western part of the state who are contending with usually dry conditions but haven't experienced major losses, according to Bob Pollock, a Penn State extension educator for horticulture crops, who is based in Indiana County and covers Southwestern Pennsylvania.

"Right now we are looking at lower yields and no major wipe-outs," he said.

Feed crops such as hay, soy beans, and corn seem to be most affected by the dry weather so far.

Crops using irrigation are, predictably, faring better.

At Trax Farms in Finleyville, Washington County, irrigation is hydrating its almost 400 acres of fruits and vegetables.

"We're spending a lot more time in irrigating than we typically do," said Bob Trax, one of the owners. "We don't know how it will affect the bottom line; it's too early in the season."

Additionally, the DEP can't predict when the western portion of the state will pull itself out of its drought-watch status.

SCATTERED EFFECT

"A thunderstorm in one little corner of Butler County may do wonders for that little corner of the county," she said. "But if it was a scattered storm, all of the other counties may not have had the same precipitation."

Last week's local rainstorms poured about 2 inches of rain in Pittsburgh, but that amount varied widely, according to Rihaan Gangat, meteorologist with the National Weather Service station near the Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon Township.

The extra rain did help the region statistically.

"We are pretty much back to normal in terms of inches of precipitation since Jan. 1," Gangat said.

Pittsburgh has had 23.94 total inches of precipitation since Jan. 1, which is 0.59-inch above the normal.

However, drought warnings are not just based on inches of rain, but how long that rain continues and affects ground water, flows of local waterways and moisture in the soil, according to Weaver.

And the season can impact how much precipitation actually penetrates the landscape.

"In the summer, vegetation grabs the moisture to use and it might not make it to supply ground water," she said. "And if temperatures are high, much of the water will evaporate and be used by plants."

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