Cold wet weather eases drought but bothers crops

Last summer, record heat and drought wreaked havoc on Douglas County crops. This spring has been just the opposite.

Chilly temperatures and a wet weather cycle have kept farmers out of the fields and buds off of the fruit trees.

“We’re kind of stymied by the cold, and it’s definitely taking its toll,” said Bruce Curtis, who operates Fieldstone Farm and Orchard in Overbrook.

Normally by mid-April his apple and pear trees would be covered in leaves and blossoms. Instead they stand bare. His asparagus crop and has yet to poke through the soil, making it four weeks behind schedule. “Not even weeds are coming up in our asparagus,” he said.

Overnight freezes late last week did not help matters.

“It’s probably the most unusual spring development we’ve seen,” Curtis said. “It promises to be challenging later in the year.”

Just how cold has it been? Lawrence saw snow flurries last week. National Weather Service meteorologist Jenifer Bowen said April high temperatures have been about 5 degrees below average. March highs hovered around 49 degrees, 7 degrees below average.

With the cold temperatures has come the moisture that local corn farmers begged for last summer as they watched their crop wither and the state become a disaster area.

Then, rain could have saved the crop. Now precipitation 12 out of the last 19 days has muddied the fields, preventing planting and threatening future yields.

“Usually a farmer in east-central Kansas plants their corn the first two weeks of April,” Matthew Vajnar, grain merchandiser at the Ottawa Coop, said. “We currently have very little planting done.”

Vajnar said farmers need a few warm dry weeks. “We’re never happy,” he joked.

According to the NWS, Lawrence has received 2.1 inches of precipitation for April, which is on track to be wetter than usual. Since January, the city has received 6.5 inches of rain, about a quarter-inch below average.

The weather may have caused headaches for food producers, but the rain clouds do have a silver lining: the moisture is easing the drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor downgraded parts of Douglas County from severe to moderate drought classification this week. Its long term forecasts suggest the possibility of more rain on the way in May and June.

In the short term, the NWS expects wet weather to continue, with chances of rain forecast early this week, Bowen said.

This should be good news for those looking to use Clinton Lake this summer. Despite the rain, the lake’s water levels remain about 5 feet below normal, at near-record lows.

“The land around is so dry that it’s soaking up all the water,” said Samantha Walker, natural resource specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers. “But If these rains will keep coming, we are hoping to see the lake rise.”