Local agriculture experts and others in the farm industry say the drought that was interrupted by late-summer rains is showing signs of picking up where it left off.
At Dulles International Airport, total annual rainfall averages 40.24 inches, according to the National Weather Service. Through Tuesday, 40.06 inches had fallen--but that included 9.32 inches in September, more than three times the normal amount for that month, and only .84 inches in November, almost 2 1/2 inches less than normal.
Donald Davis, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Administration Office, said that, in large part because of September's rain, there was no rush by farmers to enroll in some of the emergency programs his office administers. But he predicted that the numbers would increase during the winter.
"We anticipated a high participation rate in our emergency programs. We haven't seen that yet," Davis said. "But we're gearing up for a pretty good amount. Our loan-making season is just getting started."
With 40 counties in the state declared drought-emergency areas during the summer, including Loudoun, Fauquier, Fairfax and Prince William, farmers are eligible for various kinds of assistance, including low-interest loans and direct cash assistance.
About $20.9 million in cash assistance has been given to 14,372 Virginia farmers from an emergency congressional appropriation in August that took into account the drought's damage to crops. But only 41 farmers statewide have applied for emergency loans, totaling only about $3.5 million.
More money was lent this year than in 1998--also a drought year--but Davis said the figure still was less than expected. And although preliminary figures aren't available, many agriculture officials and farmers said the 1999 harvest was generally better than expected.
"The drought conditions in our area appear to be less severe than we anticipated, and I think crop yields turned out better than people anticipated," said Louis Hitt, Warrenton branch manager for Blue Ridge Farm Credit.
Hitt, who farms in northern Fauquier County, said he didn't see requests for loan extensions, or requests for refinancing, in the numbers he expected in the beginning of the year. "We might have seen some farmers taking some intermediate-term debt or refinancing, but we didn't," Hitt said. "Again, I think our overall farm economy is in fairly decent shape."
The notable exception has been hay farmers. According to estimates from the local field offices of the Farm Service Administration, Northern Virginia's hay yield dropped 75 percent. The skimpy hay crop coupled with dry pastures meant a difficult year for those who raise sheep, beef and dairy cattle and horses. Those who could not find alternative sources of water or afford to feed their animals grain have been forced to cull their herds.
In Loudoun County, the estimated number of livestock sold for slaughter was 25 percent higher than usual, and in Fauquier County that number was 30 percent, according to USDA figures.
Traude Smith, an accountant for the Fauquier Livestock Exchange in Marshall, where some of those sales took place, said the September rains, which refilled streams and wells, have contributed to a wait-and-see attitude by farmers.
"There are not as many complaints from the farmers anymore," Smith said. "The big sell-off was in August, which was unusual. We had the rains, and what I see now is fairly steady numbers for the fall. People are holding on to their cattle for a little while."
Even with fewer animals to feed, demand for hay and grain is high, as is the price of hay, which is hard to come by, some farmers said.
Dan Marvin, manager of Four Seasons Small Farm Services Inc. in Purcellville, said he had sold all of his hay by July. Typically, he said, he would have about one-third of his yearly supply available now. But he said some late-season hay "was spoken for even before we made it."
Hay that normally would sell for $3 to $3.25 a bale is selling for $4.50 a bale, Marvin said.
Andrew Gerachis, Virginia Tech extension horticulture agent for Loudoun County, said the full effects of this year's drought have yet to be seen. But next year's crop of fruits and vegetables will be affected, he said. "The drought has reduced the number of buds that were set for next year's growth," he said. "All of those plants will be slightly less vigorous and possibly less fruitful."
Gerachis said that with the financial crunch caused by the drought, farmers may not have the funds available to make the necessary improvements for next year.
"Most people are just sitting on their hands to kind of wait until spring," he said.