STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The state of Tennessee is on its way to one of the driest years in recorded history. And Tennessee's lack of water makes it the latest subject in our reports this week on water and development. We've spent most of our time in the West, but the East has its own issues, and we will start with Tennessee's drought and its cost. Blake Farmer from member station WPLN reports.
BLAKE FARMER: Take a walk around Johnny Howell's farm near Fairview, Tennessee and it doesn't take long to notice the effects of the current drought. Plumes of fine brown dust puff up from each footstep as the weathered farmer makes his morning rounds through 100 acres of cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants.
Mr. JOHNNY HOWELL (Farmer): That eggplant is small. It ought to be this tall. See how short they are?
FARMER: Well, they're barely there.
Mr. HOWELL: Yeah. And it don't get much better either if we don't get some rain.
FARMER: There's another sign of how dry it's been between the rows of undersized vegetables. No weeds.
Mr. HOWELL: Yeah. Most of the time weeds grows when nothing else will. But it's dry this year.
FARMER: Howell, along with his brother and nephew who run this family farm, are doing all they can at least to save the tomato crop. Howell stands back as his younger help wrenches open a nearby fire hydrant, which had a special meter put on it last month so he could get water to his prized tomatoes. It isn't the most high-tech system, but Howell says there's usually no need.
Mr. HOWELL: This is about the worst I've seen it since I can remember, right here.
FARMER: It's the first time he's had to irrigate in 40 years running this farm. Agriculture experts like University of Tennessee extension agent David Cook say historically there's no need to water crops.
Mr. DAVID COOK (University of Tennessee): Generally our problem in Middle Tennessee is that we have too much moisture in the spring.
FARMER: If there are can be benefits to this drought, Cook says, mosquitoes and other perennial pests are way down; fungal diseases can't make it in this dry conditions either.
Mr. COOK: But even they require some surface moisture on leaves. So we may see fewer foliar diseases on plants.
FARMER: And fewer locally grown vegetables in the supermarket. But a regional drought doesn't mean consumers won't be able to buy the cream of the crop.
Unidentified Man: The tomatoes are vine-grown from Florida.
FARMER: At the National Farmers Market, shopper Susan Johnson grabs her plastic bags of ripe of produce. She says there seem to be good looking veggies all around.
Ms. SUSAN JOHNSON (Shopper): I came expecting not being able to find some of the produce that I want this time of year, and it's all been here. So 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.
FARMER: They're just not coming from Tennessee farms. Agriculture experts suggest the drought won't affect most costumers, since the Midwest is having a relatively wet year. The pinch will be on farmers like Johnny Howell, who are running water to plants round 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 almost expects similar conditions in the future.
Mr. HOWELL: You can see the South moving north. We're having Florida weather right here. But they're good for it down there. We're not good for it.
FARMER: So you're going to start farming cactuses next year or something?
Mr. HOWELL: Palm trees maybe.
FARMER: This year, Howell says the tomatoes will make it to market. As for his other crops, it won't be long before he tills the fields up and prays for more rain next year.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.