Heat, dry weather impacting local farmers


GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tony Slaughter took a quick break Friday from a long, hot day working some of his farmland in Gray.

Slaughter has experienced many such days recently as he’s battled to preserve the best possible harvest of non-irrigated produce in the midst of an unusual stretch of heat and lack of rainfall.

“Some of our late crops that are non-irrigated such as some bell peppers … squash …, it’s just not going to make anything at all,” said Slaughter, who’s farmed for 39 years and raises a very diverse array of products. “At my house, we’ve had eight-tenths of an inch of rain since the first week of August.”

That hot, dry weather – the area averages 7 inches total in August and September – has affected vegetable crops a great deal, Slaughter said. “You have a problem with some blossom seed on some specific varieties of vegetables when it gets so hot. They shed their blossoms, so it’s been a real issue for that.”

Slaughter is keeping hope alive, as he added fertilizer and herbicide on his crops on a dry Friday afternoon.

“I guess now we hope the frost holds off, particularly on our crops that we continue to pick hopefully for the next month. The longer we pick, of course the more income we have,” Slaughter said.

He wonders whether farming should be his only source of income at this point.

“To go from one extreme to another, it’s very difficult,” Slaughter said. “Labor is very expensive and it takes a lot of people for us.”

Slaughter has company as he struggles to make the best of what’s been a challenging 2019, said Tennessee Farm Bureau President Jeff Aiken, who also operates a farm in Washington County’s Bowmantown community. Aiken said the recent weather has definitely impacted local farmers, who he said have actually endured a double whammy this year.

“Farmers are resilient and they’re accustomed to dealing with the challenges of the weather, but this year we’ve dealt with two extremes,” Aiken said. “Early in the year it was wet and difficult to get crops planted or hay harvested, and then we went from one extreme to the other with the dry weather.”

Fortunately, Aiken said, most crops, such as corn, were made when the dry weather hit. Livestock producers, though, have experienced a much earlier-than-normal end to the ability to let cattle graze. “Grass is gone, many have already started feeding hay. It’s extremely early in the year to what we’re accustomed to be feeding hay, which may cut the hay supply short.”

Aiken said he’s even begun to hear of some ponds drying up. “The problem that makes it more significant this year is not only are we dealing with dry weather but unusually high temperatures in the 90s. That only compounds it. The grass disappears, for the fall cover crops (such as wheat or rye) and some of our vegetable producers, those fall-planted crops just cannot stand the heat accompanied with the dry weather. They might stand one, but not both.”

Aiken said some farmers have sowed cover crops such as wheat or rye, which they traditionally do on land where they’ve already harvested corn, beans or other summer crops, and the seeds haven’t sprouted. “They’re concerned if the seed has died. Other farmers are waiting for more moisture and cooler weather before they even attempt to sow those type of crops.”

Fall produce such as cabbage and squash is also jeopardized, as will late-planted soybean crops, Aiken said.

“I know of a farmer in the Limestone area that grows a lot of cabbage, and he was actually attempting to irrigate it just to keep it alive.”

Mike Saylor operates Sayland Dairy in Washington County and is glad he planted his soybean crop early. He is, however, enduring the difficulty of a sparse second hay cutting.

“The soybeans had already done their thing when it turned dry,” Saylor said. “They may be dried up a bit when we harvest, but it won’t be much of an effect compared to if we hadn’t planted them early.”

As for the late hay, Saylor said he could have let it sit in hopes of rain that might come, but opted to harvest, puny as it was. “It turns to dust if you let it sit there and it doesn’t rain,” he said. “What we got isn’t very useful, though. The food value in it is pretty much burnt out.”

In Gray, while he’s ready for the heat to break, Saylor doesn’t want the cold to come too soon given that he still has a chance to salvage a good harvest from the produce he can irrigate. “Some of our irrigated crops, we’re hoping for a late frost. The longer we can pick, the more income we have.”

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