TERRE HAUTE —
Curling corn leaves roll through the fields, like scrolls chronicling the parable of a season gone dry.
Sunday afternoon, much of Indiana remained in the abnormally dry category of the U.S. Drought Monitor, while portions of Sullivan, Knox and Daviess were classified D1-D4, indicating a “moderate drought.” Southern counties including Gibson, Posey and Vanderburgh were classified D2-D4, meaning drought conditions there have been deemed severe.
And as Father’s Day came and went, Mother Nature’s rain showers didn’t arrive as hoped.
According to Marc Dahmer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, the next best chance for rain won’t be present until this coming Friday. And the longer it remains dry, the harder it will be to muster the moisture needed to make a rain.
“There are three things you need for thunderstorm development — moisture, instability and lift,” he said last week, at that point still hopeful for a burst of precipitation Sunday. “And right now we’re really lacking in the moisture department.”
From gardeners to growers, those who work with plants say present conditions look more like July or August than June, and the impact is telling.
According to Purdue University Extension Educator Jim Luzar, corn yields could vary as much as 100 bushes per acre if the dry spell continues.
By the numbers
Last week, Dahmer observed Vigo County’s dew point at 45 degrees with a relative humidity of 25 percent.
“That’s on the fairly low side,” he said, explaining that typically the month of June presents more moisture in the air. If dew points were in the 60s, he said, given an air temperature of 84 degrees, the relative humidity would be closer to 50 percent. And that moisture is in part what’s needed to generate rain.
Last year, precipitation recorded between January and June 14 totaled 25.06 inches.
“Right now, we’re sitting at 15.11 to date,” he said, adding a normal year would see 19.39 inches by this point.
Temperatures are expected to remain in the upper 80s and lower 90s this week, with a possibility for rain on Friday. But making up the kind of deficit that has accumulated over the last six months will be tough.
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility that we could make that up later on this year,” he said, adding it’s not exactly likely either.
Meanwhile, Vigo County farmer Roger Sturgeon was cutting wheat and baling straw about two weeks ahead of schedule Friday. A warm and early spring has production moving along, as he remarked farmers don’t typically harvest their wheat until July. But all the progress that seemed promised by the early planting opportunities could be negated if the dry weather persists, and Sturgeon said it’s been frustrating to watch.
At present, the ground is so dry in some areas wheat farmers can’t get their beans drilled into the ground, meaning the planting of that second crop could be delayed.
“We definitely will try,” he said. “But from what we’ve heard, you can’t get it half an inch into the ground.”
Memories from ’88
Luzar, who also coordinates the Wabash Valley Master Gardeners Association, recalled a recent conversation with a contractor who had just dug a water line. Four feet deep into the trenching process, the contractor recounted finding no moisture in the dirt.
“And he said he hasn’t seen conditions like that since 1988, which is scary,” Luzar said.
According to information found on the National Climate Data Center’s website, the three-year drought spanning portions of 1987 through 1989 ranks among America’s most costly natural disasters, with damage estimates nearing those of Hurricane Katrina.
“And that was a drought,” Luzar said, quick to note that current conditions haven’t neared those yet. “We were dry in April and it didn’t rain until August.”
But locally, wells are running low, as is the Wabash River, he observed. Pastures are beginning to deteriorate and hay crops are suffering. As with any scarcity, price increases could follow as a result, he said.
“Right now, I’m very guarded about our prospective corn yields in the area,” he said, explaining corn is a determinant plant, meaning its genetic structure calculates what size an ear to grow based on conditions present at various stages of development. Beans, on the other hand, are indeterminate plants, meaning they will continue to produce pods throughout a season.
The downside to a determinate plant is that if conditions are harsh during one of the developmental phases, the plant will produce smaller ears or less kernels so as to conserve energy, he explained. This dry spell, if prolonged, could stunt corn yields considerably.
“Right now the corn is beginning to approach pollination,” he said. “Those hot, blowing winds are really tough on pollination.”
Area farmers rely heavily on rain for their fields, as irrigation isn’t widely practiced here, he added. The cost of the equipment, coupled with relatively low water tables, means farmers have to roll the dice with Mother Nature each year.
“There’s not much else the farmers can do. Early planted crops look pretty good still, but these later planted crops where we’re seeing corn rolling up now, they’re trying to conserve moisture,” he said. “We’re just not getting those good, general crop rains to get good yields.”
Corn yields could vary as much as 100 bushels per acre, he predicted, noting it all depends on which field receives the most moisture in coming weeks.
“It’s going to be a matter of who gets the rain as to who gets the profitable year,” he said. “This is the middle of June and we’re talking about conditions that are usually seen in the middle of July.”
Down at The Apple House on South Third Street, manager Vickie Slater said plants being brought into the store for care look more like those typically seen in August.
In addition to 26 years at The Apple House, Slater has spent the last three decades gardening at her home in Casey, Ill. From shrubs to flowers, the stress of thirst is evident, she said.
“People are coming in with problems with their plants – brown wilt,” she said inside the store. “We get a lot of phone calls and people’s plants are really stressed.”
Watering her own plants every other day at home, she said it’s just a matter of time before city officials issue a statement about conserving water. In the meantime, workers at The Apple House spend five hours a day watering the store’s stock by hand, as high temperatures can produce problems if moisture is dropped from above. Spraying water on foliage during times of high heat can encourage fungus and other disease, she explained, recommending people administer water at the ground level.
“We stress to the customers when they buy a plant that watering is a priority,” she said, further advising gardeners to water early in the morning for best ground absorption. “Water newly planted items daily for a week.”
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.