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As the worst drought in 50 years continues to bake the Midwest, the East Coast is bracing for impact. Though rainfall is slightly below normal in our region, damaging storms and long days of record temperatures have wreaked havoc on crops. Kojo explores the drought’s regional impact on food, and looks at the weather patterns that are creating these damaging conditions.
- Ann Harvey Yonkers Co-Director, FRESHFARM Markets
- Tom Kierein Meteorologist, NBC4
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, Studio 360's Kurt Anderson on "True Believers," his latest novel. But first, the grim headlines from the Midwest give us the feeling that the next dustbowl is upon us. Experts say we're in the middle of the worst drought in 50 years. Crops are withering, farmers are abandoning fields and commodity prices are skyrocketing, but in our region, rain seems to be a weekly event. And despite damaging storms and high temperatures, farmers markets and produce shelves are bountiful. But appearances can be deceiving. The unpredictable weather patterns we are experiencing have wrought havoc on our region's crops.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd fallout from the drought will touch us from the price we pay at the pump to the variety of apples on grocery shelves. So are these weather patterns a glimpse of the future? How do they compare to the past? And how are local farmers coping? Joining us in studio to discuss this is Tom Kierein, meteorologist at NBC4. Tom, always a pleasure.
MR. TOM KIEREINGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Ann Harvey Yonkers, co-executive director of FRESHFARM Markets, which is a network of more than 120 farmers and producers in our region. Ann, thank you for joining us.
MS. ANN HARVEY YONKERSGlad to be here.
NNAMDITom, drought conditions now cover about 55 percent of the country, but it certainly feels like Washington's been getting, well, a decent amount of rain. How is this area doing compared to the rest of the country?
KIEREINWell, so far for 2012 every month, January through today, we have had below average rainfall. But, as you mentioned, it doesn't look like we have a drought here. The grass is green. The trees don't look stressed. In fact, I was in northern Montgomery County yesterday. Cornfields look beautiful. The corn is high and green. So we have had enough rain at the right amount of time, agriculturally anyway it seems, in much of the region that we're not stressed here. But, as you mentioned, the drought is really impacting a big part of the country.
NNAMDITo those of us who are not meteorologists we think, well, a drought is a drought. But in researching this today we learned that there are actually two different kinds of drought. What are they?
KIEREINWell, one is called a hydrologic drought that usually is associated with a lack of water. And those are the long-term droughts. And unfortunately, that's what's going on across parts of the country. It's been a long-term drought. So as a result their water supplies are getting critical. And then the other type of drought is an agricultural drought, where it's only affecting crops. It's only affecting agricultural interests. It's generally short term and does not affect the water supply. But this is our next step, I think, with this drought.
KIEREINWe've been talking about the impact on agriculture. I think the next thing is gonna be the impact on water supply.
NNAMDIWhich brings us to you, Ann Harvey Yonkers. The headlines say that this drought is the country's worst in 50 years. What are you hearing from farmers in our region and nationwide about how this compares to dry conditions from past growing seasons?
YONKERSWell, interestingly enough, I'm gonna be on a panel about the dustbowl next week at the executive office building sponsored by the NEH, which is the National Endowment of the Humanities. And what they're saying is basically this current drought compares to one that was very severe in the 1950s and then back to the '30s. But you mentioned the dustbowl. The difference in the conditions and the result now really is attributable to the creation of these soil conservation districts where the farming practices have changed enough in the Midwest so that even though you have terrible drought conditions, you are not seeing the same kind of impact that you did when the area was so thoroughly plowed for wheat.
NNAMDI800-433-8850's the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation about the local impact of the drought. How has the high heat impacted your garden? 800-433-8850. Do you remember past summers that were this hot? What are your drought memories from this region? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. We're talking with Tom Kierein, he's a meteorologist at NBC4 and Ann Harvey Yonkers, co-executive director of FRESHFARM Markets, a network of more than 120 farmers and producers in our region.
NNAMDITom, we have seen periods of abnormally high heat. Meteorologically speaking, what's causing that?
KIEREINWell, we've had this persistent deep area of high pressure that has been in one part of the country or the other ever since summer got going, ever since, actually, last spring. And when you get these deep high pressures you just cannot get storms to form. You need lighter air. High pressure is heavier air. That kinda pushes the air towards the ground, does not allow clouds to develop, does not allow storms to develop. So as a result we have had this suppression in the atmosphere pushing down, not allowing any rain, beneficially anyway, to develop.
KIEREINIt's only been spotty. So this big, deep area of high pressure just kinda shifts west, then it goes east and that's why we've had changes in our local weather where we've had, you know, this extreme heat, where we've hit 100 degrees now it's six days. Today's probably gonna be day seven, 100 or so. That's when the deep high pressure is rotating over us. Then it goes back west again. That's what it is gonna do this weekend. We'll get a break from the high heat this weekend. And when that happens, that transition period, that's when we get the rain.
KIEREINSo we've been lucky, you know. When it shifts back and forth, that's when we get the rain. And so that's good to get that transition period. But many parts of the country, they have not had that transition. It's just been sitting in one place. And it just sort of, you know, adjusts a little bit left and right. But for us we've had some dramatic changes off and on all summer.
NNAMDIAnn, what has the impact been of this high heat on produce in our region?
YONKERSWell, one of the realities about doing the kind of farming that results in direct marketing at farmers markets or community supported agriculture is that most of the growers irrigate. And that is, of course, both a guarantee and insurance against the instability of the climate conditions. So what happens in a situation like this, I've heard and talked to several farmers, many farmers, in the last three or four weeks about the weather conditions.
YONKERSAnd what they're finding, for example, tree fruit farmers even irrigate the trees because they're finding that it's extremely dry. A farm down in the Northern Neck, Garner's Produce, is basically saying they're having to irrigate for three to four hours a day, which is going to result in the fact that they will have more expense because basically their pumps, they have to pump the water either from ponds or from a well. And that's more expense in terms of labor because the irrigation has to be tended to.
YONKERSSometimes it has to be moved, depending on how it's done. So that's one of the effects. One really beneficial effect -- and this has happened before in markets -- is when you have these really dry, hot conditions you also get fruit that is very sweet. So we have unbelievably sweet plums and peaches and watermelons because they are not being rained on. And so the flavor is very concentrated. And that makes a huge big difference in how they taste. But it's tremendously affected the amount of work and sort of expenses that the farmers are going through in terms of keeping things alive. So those are, you know, some of the conditions.
YONKERSWe have a farmer, Calvin Riggleman, who's a former vet from Iraq. And he bought new acreage out in West Virginia, 85 acres. And he has a big pond that he's been irrigating from, but the problem with him is that he didn't have a chance -- because he just bought the property in the spring -- to put in irrigation. So he'll be in a situation. He's growing peppers and tomatoes which are two of the best and most sort of productive and also beneficial crops for farmers to grow around here. And he's gonna have to figure out a way to irrigate those. So probably, you know, hire a truck and bring water in.
YONKERSAnd then there's also the instability of the -- we've had very violent storms. So we have farmers reporting from western Virginia that basically they lost all their crop. Either the combination of the wind…
NNAMDIDo high temperatures matter, as long as crops are getting water?
NNAMDIDo high temperatures matter as long as crops are getting water?
YONKERSYes. Because at a certain point when the temperatures continue to be so high you really -- the vigor of the crop is affected, even when you're irrigating it.
YONKERSFor example, that happened two years ago with tomatoes, that there was such blistering heat that the tomatoes were getting sunburned, that at a certain high heat the tomato plants and peppers and so forth can no longer flower and propagate.
YONKERSSo, you know, just like plants at a certain degree of heat and continual heat get very stressed.
NNAMDIBecause of the heat. Here's Chris in Adams Morgan in Washington. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
CHRISThank you, Kojo. Yeah, we have a community garden here and very similar consequences of this strange weather. You know it's kind of more of a hobby certainly, compared to CSA's and farmers, but you know if you're not out there watering twice a day, I mean, you could kiss your crops goodbye. I mean the sun is just baking the soil, turning it into really hard soil. And then when it does rain, the rain just kinda sleets off the soil. And we're seeing a lot of -- it's like all the plants are about a month behind, seemingly. And…
NNAMDIHum, yeah. And I'm assuming you don't want to fall any further behind. So the way in which Tom Kierein can help you is to talk to you about what weather patterns are likely to be going forward. Right?
KIEREINI mean you have a good chance of getting some natural rain. You might not have to water later today. We're gonna have a pretty good chance of some storms coming in later this afternoon, early this evening.
NNAMDIDoes that help you, Chris?
CHRISWe need that. And the other thing, too, is just real quick, going forward there's two key things in terms of our greenbelt out in the Midwest and California that I've been hearing about. One, flooding from earlier, after the winter. The flooding on some of the major rivers in the Midwest has left a lot of farmland literally under sand, soaked from the rivers. And they're having a hard time just from that standpoint. And then out on the West Coast there's reports that some of the air and the water is showing signs of radioactivity from the Fukushima discharges in Japan with power plants that melted down there.
CHRISSo we're looking at from, you know, just in the five years I've been gardening it's getting harder just to garden in my own little plot. But now we're looking at greater issues here. And I hope (unintelligible)…
NNAMDII wanna talk about -- thank you for your call. I wanna talk about water conditions for a second, Tom. Because how does high heat directly affect water conditions? For instance, when it rains does more rain evaporate before hitting the ground and we don't get the full benefit of the rain?
KIEREINWell, usually what happens here, at least locally, we have so much humidity, I mean, just step out today and you'll feel it. So the air is pretty much saturated already, almost saturated with moisture. So any of the rain that falls through is not gonna have any evaporation problems. But what happens is after the rain falls the sun comes back out and maybe the next couple of days some of that rain will soak back in, but then you'll have the evaporation occurring afterward. But we are sort of, you know, it's a blessing and a curse, the humidity here. It doesn't feel that great but it does help us to keep the rain -- when it does fall keep it at least on the ground and soaking into the ground. That does help a lot.
NNAMDIAnn, commodity prices are already skyrocketing nationwide, but how does this weather impact the price of produce in this area?
YONKERSWell, one of the things that's happened with the high heat is that you have -- we're -- and this -- the whole weather pattern this year is that we are -- have been -- in our market, in terms of the products, we've been about three weeks to a month ahead of where we typically are in terms of what's available and the volume.
YONKERSFor example, how many -- let's talk about peaches. A typical farmer -- farmer's market farmer would grow up to, let's say, 30 or 40 different varieties of peaches. And the idea is that you would distribute those -- they would come and ripen at different times so that you would have peaches from the beginning of the season, which is sometimes June all the way through probably mid-September.
YONKERSBut what's happening now with these high-heat conditions is that the peaches are being -- are ripening quicker. And so farmers are expecting that they will lose their supply earlier, maybe mid-August rather than mid-September. And then, you know, let's talk about apples a little bit. The whole northern part of the United States and northeast and even the Midwest and into Michigan lost its apple crop because of the instability and the late frosts in our system.
YONKERSAnd so our apple growers are going to have tremendous amount of demands placed on them to supply apple -- people that, for example, want to make applesauce, all the wholesale use of apple spices, apple juice. Those businesses are out looking for a more stable and certainly it's going to be a more expensive source of apples to make their products.
NNAMDITom Kierein, do you have any specific drought memories in this region looking back? I seem to remember only one or two over the past decade that were bad enough to require water use restrictions. Is that something we might be facing again?
KIEREINYeah, looking back in 2007, we had a pretty dry year. Now our annual average here in Washington is about 40". That year we had about 8" below the average. That was in 2007. And, Kojo, there is a correlation between heat and drought looking back at the driest years going back all the way to 1980. Almost every one of those dry years was a year that we had excessive heat. Now for those of you who are listening who were around her in 1980, you remember the torrid summer of 1980.
KIEREINThat summer we had 67 days of 90 degrees or higher. And on an average summer, we have 38, just to put that in perspective. So that was an incredible year. But that year for the average rainfall, which is around 40", we only had 29" of rain that year in 1980. So there is a correlation between heat and drought. And coming more recently in 2002, we had a semi-drought year, but that was also a year with above average temperatures. Also 2001 was another very dry year, 1991, also 1988.
NNAMDIWell, we know we're looking at rain this afternoon, but what does the forecast look like for the next several weeks?
KIEREINWell, every month the climate prediction center -- National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center issues their seasonal drought outlook. And the latest one is showing, unfortunately, a persistent drought continuing into September for much of the Midwest. And of course already now the crop is pretty much gone there so it's not going to matter that much more as far as that's concerned. But now the increasing concern is the water supply. So that is going to be continuing to be a persistent drought there as well as the central plains, the Rockies and much of the deserts southwest. Although there will be some improvement parts of New Mexico and Texas.
KIEREINAnd around our region thankfully it looks like we won't go into drought conditions based on the patterns that we have now. Right now, we're technically called abnormally dry. That's the lowest level of what might become a drought. So I don't think we're going to turn into that. And looking even farther down the road we've all heard of El Nino and La Nina. El Nino's the abnormal warming of the Eastern Pacific and it does affect our weather here long term.
KIEREINAnd thankfully for the coming winter, we have an El Nino pattern looking like it's going to be developing. And that is going to bring more moisture in, it does look like off the Pacific, into those drought-stricken regions. So the water supply issue, the crisis that may be developing there could be ameliorated by El Nino coming up this winter. And for us, it could be a little snowier winter. We didn't have much last year so it does mean that we'll probably be getting more moisture. And thankfully that doesn't look like it's going to happen though until maybe the wintertime. But between now and then, the drought persists.
NNAMDITom Kierein. He is a meteorologist at NBC 4. Thank you so much for joining us.
KIEREINGlad to be here.
NNAMDIAnn Harvey Yonkers is co-executive director of FreshFarm Markets, a network of more than 120 farmers and producers in our region. Ann, thank you for joining us.
YONKERSA pleasure, thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, Kurt Andersen on his new novel. It's called "True Believers." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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