Despite the two snowstorms that have hit northeast Kansas recently, farmers and livestock producers in northeast Kansas say it will take a lot more precipitation for them to recover from a drought that is now stretching into its third year.
In fact, Phil Holman-Hebert, who owns Sweetlove Farm in Jefferson County, is already calling this a “sabbatical year” for his sheep and poultry operation.
That may be bad news for people who frequent the Lawrence-area farmers markets, where Sweetlove Farm has sold its locally raised mutton and poultry for years. But Holman-Hebert said he had no choice.
“We made the decision back in late June or early July that we could see the amount of forage that was going to be available was not going to sustain our animals,” he said. “You can either buy your way out of a drought (by purchasing hay and feed) or sell your way out of a drought. We couldn’t afford to buy our way out, so we sold our way out. We sold our
entire flock of sheep and I’m taking a year off.”
He said the farm is still raising its pastured poultry, in part because the birds help fertilize the soil. But because of the severity of the drought, Holman-Hebert said it may take a long time before Sweetlove Farm is back to full production.
“Last year, the top 12 inches of soil were so dry I had cracks in the soil where I could put my hand down, in some cases, halfway up to my elbow, just because there’s no soil moisture down 12, 18 to 24 inches,” he said. “That’s completely abnormal. In order for that to remedy, we need two years of regular rainfall to even begin to have that come back. And that’s a conservative estimate.”
Mary Knapp, the state climatologist at Kansas State University, said that’s probably an accurate estimate.
“For perennial crops — and pastures are a kind of perennial crop — if you have a two-year drought, it can take two years to recover. It depends on how healthy the plants were to start with.”
Knapp said there is a distinction between a crop drought and a hydrologic drought. The snow that fell on northeast Kansas recently may provide short-term relief and help annual crops like the winter wheat that is now coming up, or the corn and soybeans that farmers will plant in the spring.
But it will take a lot more precipitation, she said, to restore the deep subsoil moisture in the ground, or to refill stock ponds and streams that have gone dry.
Bruce and Marianne Curtis, who own Fieldstone Orchard near Overbrook in Osage County, said they are seeing the impact of the long-term drought as well.
“One thing is the size of the apples,” Marianne Curtis said. “If it’s not an area where we’re irrigating, some of those trees did OK, but the fruit was smaller than normal. But then that makes it more sugar-dense and tastier too, in some ways, so you have some benefits. But you have some trees that couldn’t get even the deep soil moisture, and especially I’d say the dwarf trees had a harder time of it than the full-grown trees. Those dwarf trees just couldn’t get the moisture in, and that creates fruits that don’t ever get to size. Either they don’t ripen at all, or once they do ripen they get soft and mushy very quickly.”
Curtis said they irrigate apple trees at Fieldstone Orchard with water from a nearby spring-fed pond, injecting the water directly into the soil around the roots.
“We utilized those ponds pretty extremely last year, and they got really low,” she said. “So we need a lot of water to fill those ponds back up.”
Knapp said that although the recent snows provided some short-term relief, there is no reason to think the long-term drought will end anytime soon.
She pointed to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center which forecasts that the drought will persist throughout Kansas and most of the western United States at least through the end of May.