Tennessee Drought Stunts Growth of Local Crops

A three-inch squash found on the Howell farm. i i

A three-inch squash found on the Howell farm should be ready to harvest in most years. Lack of rainfall has stunted growth of all the crops on the farm. Blake Farmer/WPLN hide caption

itoggle caption Blake Farmer/WPLN
A three-inch squash found on the Howell farm.

A three-inch squash found on the Howell farm should be ready to harvest in most years. Lack of rainfall has stunted growth of all the crops on the farm.

Blake Farmer/WPLN

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In a weeklong series Morning Edition explores some of the conflicts that arise as different groups of people seek to maintain their hold on — or to get a hold of — more water in the arid West and other regions of the country.

Dried-out tractor ruts show signs of the drought. i i

Dried-out tractor ruts show how long it has been since rain hit the Howell farm. Howell says the vegetable rows have been that way since March of this year. Blake Farmer/WPLN hide caption

itoggle caption Blake Farmer/WPLN
Dried-out tractor ruts show signs of the drought.

Dried-out tractor ruts show how long it has been since rain hit the Howell farm. Howell says the vegetable rows have been that way since March of this year.

Blake Farmer/WPLN
A farmer transfers water from a fire hydrant to the crops. i i

A special water meter was put on the fire hydrant in May so Howell could water his thirsty crops. An early freeze combined with dry weather has decreased the productivity of many farms in the area. Blake Farmer/WPLN hide caption

itoggle caption Blake Farmer/WPLN
A farmer transfers water from a fire hydrant to the crops.

A special water meter was put on the fire hydrant in May so Howell could water his thirsty crops. An early freeze combined with dry weather has decreased the productivity of many farms in the area.

Blake Farmer/WPLN
Johnny Howell, pictured by his dried, but prized tomato crops. i i

Johnny Howell from Fairview, Tennessee is known for his tomatoes, as pictured on his cap. He says that watering his crops around-the-clock might be the only chance of getting his tomatoes on the market stand. Blake Farmer/WPLN hide caption

itoggle caption Blake Farmer/WPLN
Johnny Howell, pictured by his dried, but prized tomato crops.

Johnny Howell from Fairview, Tennessee is known for his tomatoes, as pictured on his cap. He says that watering his crops around-the-clock might be the only chance of getting his tomatoes on the market stand.

Blake Farmer/WPLN

A record-breaking Easter freeze stunned the South, following the driest winter in more than a century. With unseasonably dry conditions since then, Tennessee and its $20-billion farming industry are heading for one of the driest years in state history.

The drought's effects are noticeable along Johnny Howell's farm near Fairview, Tenn. Plumes of fine, brown dust puff up from each footstep as he makes his morning rounds through 100 acres of cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants — vegetables that won't grow much bigger if rain doesn't come.

"It's small. It ought to be this tall. It's all little," Howell says, pointing to an eggplant. "There's them cucumbers. See how short they are?"

There's another sign of how dry it's been: No weeds between the vegetables.

"Most of the time, weeds grow when nothing else will," Howell says. "But it's dry this year."

Howell, along with his brother and nephew who run the family farm, are trying save a tomato crop. Howell stands back as his young helper wrenches open a nearby fire hydrant. Howell put a special meter on it last month in order to water his prized tomatoes. It isn't the most high-tech system, but he says there's usually no need for expensive machinery.

It's the first time that Howell has had to irrigate in the 40 years running the farm. Agriculture experts, including University of Tennessee extension agent David Cook, say that historically, there has been no need to water crops.

"Generally, our problem in Middle Tennessee is that we have too much moisture in the spring," Cook says.

One benefit of this drought, he says, is that mosquito and other perennial pest populations are down. Fungal diseases can't make it in dry conditions, either.

Locals can also expect fewer locally grown vegetables in the supermarket. But a regional drought doesn't mean that consumers won't be able to buy the best of the crop.

At the Nashville Farmers Market, shopper Susan Johnson walks with her plastic bags full of ripe produce. She says there seems to be good-looking vegetables all around.

"I came expecting not to find some of the produce I want this time of year, and it's all been here," she says. "I wait on tomatoes. I wait on watermelons. I wait on corn. And sometimes I'll even wait on peaches, but even the peaches look great."

Agriculture experts suggest the drought won't affect most consumers since the Midwest is having a relatively wet year. The pinch will be on farmers like Johnny Howell who run water to plants around the clock, without much hope of turning a profit.

Howell says it wouldn't take too many years like this one to put him under, and he fears similar conditions in the future.

"You can see south moving north. We're having Florida weather right now ...," he says, "But they're geared for it down there. We're not geared for it."

In the meantime, Howell jokes, he'll start farming palm trees.

Blake Farmer is a reporter for member station WPLN.

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