Farmers in 18 drought-stricken Virginia counties may lose more than $106 million this year because of the severe rain shortage, according to reports submitted today to state agricultural officials.
This summer's drought is said to be the most severe in Virginia since 1930. Midget cornstocks, listless in the hot sun instead of billowing tall in summer breezes, stand in parched soil throughout the west-central and northern sections of the state. Numerous silos already are empty of the feed that was supposed to last through next winter. Peaches and apples are withering on the branches of many trees that also are dying.
"This summer's drought, coupled with the hard freeze last winter, is certainly one of the most severe on record for Virginia," said Wilson T. Leggett Jr., acting state executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. Leggett said his office has approved 27 counties as needing federal disaster assistance, although only 18 will be included in the initial request to President Carter for aid.
Four additional counties that asked for assistance have not yet been approved by the state because further information is needed to document their need, while another three counties likely will be asked for drought damage assessment reports soon, Leggett said. About 9,300 farmers need federal assistance in the 18 counties that will be included in Gov. Mills E. Godwin's formal disaster aid request to Carter on Tuesday, according to reports received today by state agricultural officials. Without such assistance, about 2,100 cattle producers said, they will have to sell their livestock.
The 18 counties are Albemarle, Augusta, Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Fluvanna, Frederick, Goochland, Louisa, Madison, Orange, Page, Prince William, Rappahannock, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Stafford and Warren.
A resolution passed recently by the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors clearly illustrates the drought problem. Culpeper "has suffered through one of the worst winters on record which greatly stressed the local farming community," the resolution reads. "Culpeper currently is enduring a drought of record-breaking proportions," the corn crop has been "damaged beyond recovery," and pastures can't support the grazing of cattle anymore."
Hamilton Hutcherson, 50, who owns a 900-acre dairy farm outside Culpeper, doesn't need county statistics to tell him that things are bad for dairy farmers in Virginia this summer.
Three weeks ago, Hutcherson said, he was forced to sell at a loss all his livestock weighing more than 800 pounds - 170 dairy cattle and steers because he had no silage to feed them. Now he is faced with a crucial decision about what to do with the small cattle he has left on his farm. Should he sell them also, he wonders, or gamble by feeding them the dwarfed corn he still has but which may be so highly concentrated with nitrogen that it will kill them?
Hutcherson, whose wife is an art teacher, said he will decide next spring whether to continue farming. He has been a farmer for 30 years.
"Everybody's got to make a decision on how much he wants to fight," Hutcherson said. "You learn to expect adversity. This has been the worst year in my lifetime. But I can honestly say that I'm handling it mentally - considerably better than I would have when I was younger. I've learned to cope. I'm not going to let it kill me."
Hutcherson said that if he decides to continue farming it will take him a minimum of five years to recover his losses this year, although he declined to predict how much they would be.
According to the report sent in by county officials, Culpeper farmers will need 12,000 tons of hay shipped in to feed their cattle and 500,00 bushels of grain to feed cattle and hogs. As many as 10 farmers in Culpeper will sell all their livestock in the absence of federal assistance, according to Robert Apperson an agricultural official in Culpeper.
Apperson said Culpeper probably will not have adequate grazing for livestock until April of next year.
If Carter declares the Virginia counties as disaster areas as requested by Godwin, then farmers in those jurisdictions will be eligible for a hay transportation assistance program, which pays a portion of the freight costs in getting hay moved into areas needing it; an emergency feed program, and possibly a drought emergency conservation program. Some farmers, if they cannot get financial help from local banks and lending institutions, can qualify for low-interest federal loans.
The 13 crop-damage assessment reports sent in to the state agency avowed damages ranging from a high of $19 million in Frederick County to an estimated $1 million damage in several of the counties.
Hutcherson noted that "everything now is a salvage operation. This is just not normal farming."