Alvin Harmon lives for these hot, muggy days. But his alfalfa and archer grass don't.
The meager growth of what will become food for some 120 horses has made Harmon's summer lively. "The work never ends," said Harmon, 64, propping his leg up on a utility vehicle yesterday morning after fetching one of four hay wagons that, he hopes, will be full by week's end.
Harmon, farm manager for a 420-acre Virginia Tech research spread in northern Fauquier County where he has worked for 40 years, estimates this year's hay yield will be half what it normally is. Put in context, this is good news: Because of the drought, some area farms have yields of one-third to one-quarter their usual size.
"I feel all right about it," Harmon said of the job he and two assistants have done this summer with the 70 acres they have in hay. He was smiling, but only a little. To gloat would be ungentlemanly, and he is hearing enough tales of woe from farmers coming into the Middleburg video store he has run on the side for 15 years.
"They've had a tough time of it, a lot of them," Harmon said, his voice as gentle as the rolling landscape.
Raised in Tappahannock, Va., he came to the farm on Sullivans Mill Road in 1958. In those days, dairy cattle were raised on the land, which was donated by Paul Mellon, the Fauquier County philanthropist, art collector and horse breeder who died Feb. 1. Since that time, Harmon has helped tend sheep, beef cattle and, as of nine years ago, thoroughbred horses -- each new animal a reflection of what the agricultural economy would support.
He pointed into the distance, where rows of archer grass and alfalfa were browning in the sun, part of the second "cut" this season. Shortly, Harmon would be raking those rows to dry.
Earlier, he was on the phone with a vendor who, if the rain holds off, will begin spreading lime over portions of the land at about $18 a ton. It is this combination of lime and fertilizer and some old-time intuition of when to cut that Harmon says has spared the farm from the drought's worst blows.
"He knows a lot about the practical end of things," said Janice Holland, one of two professors who oversee four Tech graduate students researching horse nutrition. "We don't always use his knowledge as much as we should."
On this day, Harmon is assaying the land and planning for more drought, a process that preoccupies him on his long rides through the fields, cutting hay or baling it.
"Hopefully, this rain will bring back the pasture some," he said.
Already, he has begun feeding the horses hay from the first of three or four cuts this year.
"We usually don't do that until December," he said, because the pastures usually provide enough until then.
Still, even though the grass languishes, Harmon is thriving. "I love this weather," he said. "The hotter the better for me."