Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Local farmers still prepare for possible dry conditions
The 17 westernmost counties of North Carolina have not been under drought conditions since May 8, according to data gleaned from the U.S. Drought Monitor of North Carolina.
And the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources recently announced that the entire state was free of drought conditions for the first time in nearly two years.
Experts struggle to define drought, but Deke Arndt, chief of the climate monitoring branch of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, said drought simply is a period “when there’s not enough water to meet demand.”
Arndt said the balance depends on the amount of water available and the amount of water expected at any point in time. But the main determinate of drought conditions, he said, “is tied to the climate of a place.”
“Drought basically emerges when serious impacts come into play,” Arndt said. Serious impacts include intense water conservation, low levels of lakes and rivers and stress on agricultural producers.
“Those kinds of impacts haven’t been observed, reported or communicated widely from the region,” he said.
Western North Carolina tends to have an overall drier climate, Arndt said. But the region’s climate is complicated and some individual counties and regions receive more precipitation than others. For example, while Brevard tends to be a very wet region, Ardnt said Weaverville is comparatively very dry.
When looking at climate in the short term, storm systems and other transient conditions contribute to the day-to-day weather and are enhanced through the warm and largely unpredictable summer months.
“It’s the hit-or-miss nature of precipitation,” Arndt said. “Rain patterns by and large are ‘splotchy.’”
Farmers cope with water challenges
For Polk County organic farmer Lee Mink, water retention and conservation is imperative to a successful crop. He said he employs various practices to ensure steady production and the development of what he calls a “healthy living soil.”
Mink grows more than 20 species of tomatoes, a variety of squashes and zucchinis, and a diverse selection of lettuces, peppers, okras, cucumbers, blueberries, figs, peaches, apples and sunflowers.
A walk around Mink’s Leap Farm reveals his water retention methods. He uses a cover crop, such as rye or wheat straw, to cover the soil and beds around his plants. Mink said this reduces the soil temperature and also protects the soil from drying out in the sun.
But some of Mink’s techniques hide within and beneath the soil. He plants his crops low to the ground to encourage vertical root growth, which allows the plants to soak up more water from below. Mink also uses compost as a fertilizer.
“Compost is the life blood of farming and water retention,” he said.
Mink said scientists have found that there are more than “a billion life forms in a handful of healthy living soil.” When you have that energetic of a soil, he said, there is a significantly reduced need for water.
“I’m not a great farmer,” Mink said. “I’m just good at building soil.”
Lynn Sprague, director of the Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development, who was a force behind creating the Mill Spring Agricultural Development and Community Center, works with farmers in the area to encourage water conservation and healthy production. However, he said it’s difficult to conserve in such a typically dry region as Polk County.
“A lot of our farmers irrigate out of the streams,” Sprague said. “(But) down here it’s almost impossible to grow without irrigation.”
Polk County Extension Director John Vining said the county’s “pastures have really taken a beating. We’ve had four drought years out of five.”
Drought conditions impact pastures because the groundwater isn’t replenished enough to recharge the grass and pasture, Vining said, so livestock raisers end up having to buy hay or reseeding their land so their animals have enough to eat. The lack of rainwater also means the ground isn’t wet enough for seeds to germinate, he said.
Vining also said stream flow in Polk County is less than what it was 10 years ago, which has a direct effect on many farmers in there since they hydrate their crops with stream water.
“So far, our spring rain’s been pretty good,” Vining said. “I don’t want to jinx it.”
For Mink, seasonal precipitation dictates whether he will continue planting, because with his sustainable farming commitment, Mink said you can’t put large amounts of water into a field to keep it up.
“If we don’t get this big rain, I’m going to have to make a decision,” he said. “It’ll take thousands and thousands of gallons of water if (the soil) gets that dry.”
Mink said he knows water is the most important element of a successful garden, but that it is imperative to observe, listen and decide what is best for the land and for the future when farming.
“In sustainability farming, you’re not controlling and manipulating,” he said. “You’re adapting and assimilating.”
Online drought resources
Various state and federal agencies share a variety of drought-related information online, including:
- North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council
- North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Division of Water Resources Drought Monitoring
- State Climate Office of North Carolina
- North American Drought Monitor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center
- National Integrated Drought Information System’s U.S. Drought Portal
For a time-lapse map showing historical drought information for all of North Carolina from April 24, 2007 through June 12, see WRAL.com’s animated map of statewide drought conditions.