Carolina growers get drought relief

Though much needed rainfall in the spring brought some temporary relief for North Carolina farmers, the long-term impact of drought lingers on, especially for the state's livestock, hay crop, ornamentals, and fruit and vegetable industries.

Drought conditions continued to improve in North Carolina in April on into the beginning of planting season for many row and vegetable crops. Portions of the eastern coastal area of the state are no longer suffering from drought conditions, according to the latest drought map released by the North Carolina Drought Management Association.

Only 12 North Carolina counties remain under Extreme Drought as conditions continue to improve throughout the state thanks to generous March and April rainfalls. As of May 1, 50 counties, making up about half the state, remained classified as Severe while 18 are classified as Moderate. A total of 20 counties, including the entire Coastal area is now classified as Abnormally Dry.

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook indicates continued improvement throughout the Southeast, but long-term impacts will persist as water demand increases by summer. Exceptional Drought conditions have been eliminated across the Southeast, thanks to adequate March and April rainfall.

“North Carolina farmers lost a half billion dollars in crops in 2007 because of this drought — that's 17 percent of total crop revenue in a typical year,” says State Senator Charlie Albertson. “The damage wasn't merely in lost harvest. Pastureland needs to be renovated and reseeded before livestock can graze again, and we're still in this drought. Farmers really need our help to go forward.”

Despite some respite from the drought, some areas of western North Carolina continue to feel the immediate affects of the ongoing drought. Recently North Carolina Governor Mike Easley announced a program that will bring some relief to particularly embattled farmers in the western portions of the state.

Easley announced that six western North Carolina communities are eligible for a total of $1.58 million in grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help expand their public water supplies.

The six towns; Lenoir, Valdese, Tryon, Marshall, Mars Hill and Blowing Rock, were chosen because they are among those in the state that are facing the most severe water shortages. These towns provide water for a number of new vegetable crop operations, especially strawberry production that have sprung up in the area in the past few years.

“These communities are among the most vulnerable in our state and could run out of water if the drought continues into the summer,” Easley said. “We helped these towns identify new water sources and now we are helping them pay to connect to those sources.”

In early May North Carolina livestock producers and growers got some much needed relief, thanks to a $6 million grant from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.

Dubbed the North Carolina Drought Recovery Program, it will cover about 75 percent of the cost of restoring drought-damaged pastureland. Funds from the program also can be used to provide additional water for both livestock and crops.

“This grant makes it possible for more than 1,000 farmers and farm operations to restore some of the damage from last summer's severe drought and to prepare, so the next long, hot and dry summer doesn't do as much damage,” said Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.

North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Troxler, provided additional relief for the state's drought-damaged livestock and horse industries by announcing a revamped hay assistance program.

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services established the Ag and Equine Partners Program last year to help owners of cattle, sheep, goats and horses with the cost of transporting hay from other states and Canada.

The program reimbursed farmers and ranchers for transporting out-of-state hay at a rate of 50 cents per mile round trip or $1 per loaded mile, up to $500 per load.

Though most areas of the Southeast reported adequate moisture for planting in early May, for many farmers and businesses the relief comes too late. Nursery businesses in the Southeast were particularly hard hit by the drought.

In Atlanta, Pike Nurseries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in mid-November due to the severe drought. The operation, one of the most respected in the U.S., had 22 locations in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina Pike's employed 750 people at the time the company filed for bankruptcy. According to the court filing last November, Pike Nursery Holdings owed nearly $5.6 million to its 20 largest unsecured creditors.

In February, the company and all its equipment and facilities were put on the auction block, with the plight of the 50-year old company and its 700-plus employees still hanging in the balance.

In addition to the ever-escalating cost of fertilizer, fuel, seed technology and other crop input costs, growers in North Carolina must keep a watchful eye on Mother Nature. If continued improvement in moisture levels continues, State farmers should have a good year, with most commodity prices remaining high.

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