At Meadow Hill Farm in Loudoun County, the pastures are taking on a yellowish hue. Shoots aren't sprouting from 100 acres planted with rye because there hasn't been enough rain for the seeds to germinate. And the usual grass dinner for the 200 cows has been supplemented with hay.
As he drove his white pickup truck through the fields yesterday morning, Donald Virts, who has worked on this farm for more than 30 years, said the long dry stretch is beginning to take a toll. For now, the streams are flowing, hay is abundant and there's green grass poking through, but the land needs rain.
"There's still a bit of grass out there. Ideally you'd like to have it way up to your knees, but I'm tickled with what I've got," said Virts, 65. "Anybody involved in farming, they believe, or they wouldn't last. You have to have faith that things will turn around and it will rain."
The Washington area experienced the driest September in more than a century, and the heat and dearth of rain have produced parched lawns, dusty schoolyards and withered gardens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared several Virginia counties, including Loudoun, Fauquier and Clarke, agricultural disaster areas. And fire officials worry that if showers don't come soon, pine needles and leaves could fuel wildfires.
According to the National Weather Service, 0.11 inches of rain fell last month at Reagan National Airport, a few drops less than the previous record of 0.14 inches, in 1884, and far less than the typical 3.67 inches. Forecasters say there's a 30 percent chance that a cold front moving into the area will bring showers Wednesday or Thursday.
Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor, a Nebraska-based consortium of academics and federal agencies, declared that the entire mid-Atlantic region is experiencing a moderate drought.
Although Round Hill and other localities are encouraging voluntary conservation, area officials said previous years of above-normal rainfall have left groundwater and reservoir levels adequate. This year, 29.71 inches of rain has been measured at National Airport, about one-fifth of an inch less than is typical.
Still, the impact of the unusual and prolonged dry spate is clear in any neighborhood. Leaves so dry they crackle underfoot are piling up. Only lawns watered by conscientious gardeners remain lush. Horticulturists say fall foliage watchers should expect a subdued palette from the leaves that do hang on.
Turf farmers, landscapers and even homeowners tending to lawns and gardens are feeling the drought's impact.
Diana Patton, president of Turf Center Inc. in Spencerville, said she recently had to turn a potential client away because she couldn't provide enough sod for the landscaping job he had been hired to perform.
Patton, a former president of the Maryland Turfgrass Association, said the dry weather has made this year's turf crop less abundant and healthy. Growers planting seeds for future crops also are finding that the seeds aren't taking root because there's not enough moisture.
"You can't really irrigate enough to get the production. You're going to get lesser quantity, lesser quality," Patton said. "You can't substitute rainfall. You just pray real hard."
Steve Dubik, a horticulturist who teaches landscaping at Montgomery College, said gardeners and landscapers are frustrated by wilting shrubs and stressed trees. There's no point in fertilizing to prepare plots for the spring, he said, because the soil can't absorb the nutrients.
"I was sitting with my master [gardener] students, and they are all distraught," said Dubik, who works as a horticulture adviser for the Montgomery County Cooperative Extension.
Dubik, who lost one of his beloved Daphne shrubs, which produces delicate white flowers around Valentine's Day, said he has encouraged his students to buy some colorful mums in pots so they'll have "a little hope."
Warren Howell, Loudoun County's agricultural marketing manager, said corn and soybean production was good this year because of early rains. The problem, he said, is that dying grass has forced farmers to dip into hay supplies early to feed livestock.
The federal agricultural disaster designation allows farmers to seek low-interest loans, Howell said. He said the situation has not become dire because hay is available and there's enough water in streams and lakes.
The "silver lining," Howell said, is for vineyards. Grapes are thriving in the hot, dry weather, and the fruits promise to produce fine vintages.
Virts, who remembers droughts so serious that streams dried up and hay was scarce, said he's confident that nature will sort itself out. For now, he said, he's more worried about taxes and fuel prices.
"September was dry. August was dry. But it's a long way from a disaster in my mind," Virts said. "I've seen it a lot worse."