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Partners:
Northeast Crops Wither Away

By Debbie Goldberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 13, 1999; Page A3

WORCESTER TOWNSHIP, Pa. It's yet another hot, sunny day, and Scott Rothenberger, a fourth-generation farmer in this rural area north of Philadelphia, fingers a stalk of corn that reaches little further than his knees. The leaves are wheat-colored, dry and brittle. A swath of husk is pulled away to reveal a tiny, malformed ear with no kernels.

This time of year, the corn at Merrymead Farm should be towering over Rothenberger, at about, say, 12 feet high. Instead, the double whammy of drought conditions and relentless heat this summer has decimated much of the farm crops across Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"It stopped raining when we were planting," said Rothenberger, gazing over some of the 350 acres his family farms. Twenty-five acres of sweet corn were lost. Pumpkin plants that should be lush and dense and heavy with 10-inch pumpkins are sparse and wilted and almost devoid of fruit. Seventy acres of alfalfa, grown to feed the cattle, have been mowed over.

The drought conditions that have stunted crops and destroyed lawns in Virginia and Maryland, which has imposed mandatory water use restrictions, have affected a large chunk of the East Coast as far as Rhode Island. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, state officials say the dry conditions will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural losses.

"It's the drought of a lifetime for growers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey," said Al Peterlin, chief meteorologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noting that parts of the region are the driest they've been in more than a century. Since last week, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland and parts of Virginia, New York and Ohio, as well as contiguous counties in surrounding states, have been declared agricultural disaster areas by the Department of Agriculture, making farmers eligible for low-interest loans. Pennsylvania has a request pending with USDA that includes the counties that haven't been declared disaster areas already.

Every summer, USDA handles drought requests from various states, but what's unusual this year is the dry weather in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, said USDA spokeswoman Laura Trivers.

The problem is, quite simply, a lack of rain that goes back as many as 18 months in some areas. Precipitation is as low as 18 inches below normal in New Jersey and Pennsylvania over that time, Peterlin said. In New Jersey, the last 12 months have been the driest in 33 years, said Sharon Southard, spokesperson for the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

In the Delaware Valley region, drought emergencies have been declared for New Jersey, most of Pennsylvania and northern Delaware, prompting mandatory restrictions on water use. The lack of rain is threatening water supplies from reservoirs, streams, rivers and wells.

The hot, dry conditions are a perfect breeding ground for fires. In the Pine Barrens, a one-million acre pine forest in central New Jersey, 124 fires were reported for July, more than three times the typical average for that month, said Richard Bentz, assistant fire warden for the New Jersey Fire Service.

Across the region, suburban lawns are brown and crunchy, landscapers have all but given up on any business this summer, and much of the next few years' crops of Christmas trees are endangered. Philadelphia school officials this week barred use of the city's athletic fields, putting the kibosh on team practices that normally would begin this month, to prevent further damage to the parched fields. And state officials said nearly 2,400 bear sightings have been reported this year in eastern Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, as the dry land pushes the hungry animals' search for food further east, particularly in upscale residential areas near the Delaware Water Gap, about 60 miles west of Manhattan.

Charles Yencer, a 76-year-old tree grower in Carbon County, Pa., in the Pocono Mountains of northeast Pennsylvania, has lost at least half of the 18,000 young fir trees planted in his fields this spring. What's worse, he's losing thousands of six-year-old trees that are almost ready to sell. "We've never had anything like this," said Yencer, who's been in the business since 1971.

The water restrictions in the region aren't too severe--yet. No watering lawns, washing cars with hoses or serving water in restaurants unless requested. But plants and shrubs can be watered. In the evening, golf course tees and greens are exempt from the restrictions and carwash businesses are allowed to operate. And many people are taking even greater steps to conserve water. Susan Ongirski of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., has been showering with a bucket to collect water for her plants that would otherwise go down the drain. And a state-sponsored chat room offers tips on water conservation, such as using cooled-down pasta water for shrubs.

The restrictions have helped. Water consumption is down by as much as 20 percent in Pennsylvania since the drought emergency was declared July 20, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. And New Jersey's reservoirs, which were declining at a rate of 0.5 percent a day before the drought restrictions, are now dropping at a rate of 0.4 percent daily, Southard said. But water conservation can only do so much. What the region desperately needs are rains of almost biblical proportions to replenish water tables, reservoirs and wells. Anything less than days of good, soaking rains is likely to run right off the soil, which is parched and solid as a rock across the region.

For many farmers, however, any rains that do come will be too late to salvage this growing season. Merrymead Farm will be kept afloat this year by its related businesses--selling baked goods and ice cream made with the help of its 125 dairy cows.

But almost everything relating to farming will be a loss this year. The money spent to plant the fields--wasted. The hundreds of acres of silage corn to feed the cows in the coming year--almost a total loss. On top of that, it will cost $30,000 to buy the feed to fill each silo.

Less fortunate farmers won't survive this year's drought at all, especially those who live from harvest to harvest, often taking out loans in the spring to cover planting expenses and counting on a good harvest for their year's profits.

Chuck Kohler, whose grandfather founded the family farm in Horsham, Pa., in the 1920s, has fared better than many, having put in an irrigation system three years ago. But he's pretty sure many others won't be as lucky. "It's going to put some guys out of business," he said.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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