The alfalfa field at Bill Blose's Midrock Farm near here should be a foot high, the cloverlike leaves rippling in the breezes that come down from the mountains cradling the Shenandoah Valley.
But apart from a few anemic-looking sprouts, the field, though planted last April, is almost bare of alfafa. Instead there is an ugly patchwork of clay and weeds.
Bill Blose's alfalfa, which is supposed to be growing into the high-protein food needed by Midrock's Holstein dairy cows, is being killed by drought.
The drought, which began last November, extends the length of the 150-mile-long valley, Virginia's agricultural heartland, from Winchester south to Roanoke. The upper part of the valley, around Rockingham, the biggest agricultural county in the state, has been particularly hard hit.
Rockingham got about one fourth of an inch of rain yesterday and may get some more today, according to the National Weather Service, but that is not believed to be enough to alleviate the drought conditions.
The drought hasn't reached dustbowl proportions - animals aren't collapsing in the fields and foreclosure notices aren't being nailed to farmhouses - but the drought is genuine.
These are some of the symptoms:
The first haying of the season was less than half the size of one in a normal year. In some fields, grass cut for hay was ankle high instead of waist high.
Unable to produce enough hay to feed their animals, farmers have had to buy supplies from places as distant as Idaho.
Beef cattle are being sent to market early, at lower prices per pound, because farmers cannot raise enough hay or other feed to fatten the animals. Rockingham Livestock Sales Inc. in Harrisonburg said that on a recent sale day it bought 200 cattle instead of the normal 100.
Farmers are being hurt, Bill Blose for example. He lost a $4,000 investment in seed, chemicals and other planting expenses when he first tried - and failed - to get his alfalafa field going last fall, at the onset of the drought. If the second planting fails too, that will mean another $4,000 lost.
The drought has meant a poorer quality diet for his Holsteins. This, in turn, has cost him the premiums - up to $900 a month - he has gotten from his wholesale customer, Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Association Inc. of Arlington, when his milk has a high butterfat content.
"Bill says he's $25,000 worse off" since the drought began, his wife, Ellen, the farm's bookkeeper, said. A big chunk of that loss has gone for hay that had to be bought when cuttings on Midrock's fields produced meager yields.
If the drought continues - and the ordinarily drier summer period is still ahead - Blose's losses will start piling up. A big question mark is the 250 acres planted in corn, an essential in the Holsteins' diet if they are to produce milk with a high butterfat content.
If all the corn is wiped out, Blose's total planting loss could rise to $25,000 or $30,000. Any corn that doesn't grow will have to be replaced with commercial feed, adding to Blose's losses.
Blose had to borrow $10,000 on his line of credit at the bank to pay for fertilizer and chemicals for this spring's planting. At Rockingham National Bank in Harrisonburg, the county seat, assistant vice president James L. Grove said the drought has probably forced 15 per cent of the county's farmers either to get new loans or extend old ones.
The county, as Grove says, is "pretty prosperous" agriculturally. But there are some distress signals. H. H. Scott, manager of the Harrisonburg office of Shenandoah's Pride Dairy, which serves metropolitan Washington, said field agents reported late last week that three dairy farmers "are on the verge of selling out" because they can't afford to buy hay.
"This is as bad as I've ever seen it in the spring," Scott said.
The farmers themselves are generally optimistic, or at least not pessimistic. "It's hard for me to get discouraged," Blose says, even as he surveys 40 acres of clay and weeds where alfalfa should be sprouting. "If you let a half-million dollars of liability get you down, it would be bad."
At the 275-acre Rocky dairy farm near Bridgewater, owner Gardner Nelson is feeling good about the 1/10th of an inch of rain that barely moistened his fields at daybreak. "Anytime we get any rain at all, we are just tickled to death."
Rockingham has had only about 60 per cent of the 14 1/2 inches of rain that it should have received since November. Amateur metereologist Clayton Towers of Bridgewater, an optimist too, says, "Personally I think it will get better." But, he adds, "I don't have anything to back that up."
Irrigation would be one way for farmers to survive the drought but, as Gardner says, "our history has not been two years in 10. So we can't justify the investment for irrigation, which would be $30,000 to $40,000."
At Midrock, Bill Blose, an hour late for lunch, pulls his brown pickup into the driveway in front of the farmhouse.He calls out to his wife, standing by the front door, with his discovery, "The corn's doing all right."
Ellen Blose puts on a bright smile and raises her arms in a victory V.
So far, the drought has not created any shortages of drinking water in the urban centers in the Shenandoah Valley, according to the State Water Control Board and State Health Department.
But just outside the valley, the little town of Stanley, tucked between Massanutten Mountain and the Blue Ridge 25 miles northeast of Harrisonburg, is struggling to keep its 1,200 residents and about the same number in the surrounding area supplied with water. Two weeks ago pipelines almost went dry when one of the town's two pumps burned out.
"We were a fire hazard," Councilman Louis Bosley said, aligning a front wheel in the Stanley Auto Service garage.
The pump has been prepared, but the town has had to drill a third hole to tap the receding water table.
Until the well starts bringing in water, if it ever does. Stanley's police are enforcing the town emergency ordinance banning watering of gardens or lawns, washing cars, filling swimming pools or other nonessential uses.
Though officials have warned residents that if they don't cooperate, the two storage tanks will dry up altogether. Councilman Eldon B. Owens says some people ignore the ordinance and water their gardens and lawns.
There's a drought in Stanley too.