TAZEWELL, Va . — Recent rains have some local farmers jumping for joy, but more is needed if they are to take advantage of what’s now a good market for cattle.

The U.S. Drought Monitor indicated Wednesday that both southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia are in a severe drought. This makes the week’s rainfall especially welcome.

“I saw two 70-year-old farmers jumping up and down like kids in the mud,” said Mark Harris, an agent with the Virginia Tech Extension Service in Tazewell County. Area growers are grateful for the moisture, and certainly “won’t send any of it back.”

“Any rain is a help. I don’t know what the totals were, but if we had our way, we’d have an inch of rain today, four days of sunshine, then another inch of rain. We need it like that for about six weeks,” Harris said. “The volume of water [recently] is certainly a help, but it’s not the answer to the problem.”

In Mercer County, farmers are having problems getting enough water for their animals, said agent Jodi Richmond of the WVU Extension Service. Getting food for cattle is becoming a problem as well.

“Everyone is having trouble with hay this year,” Richmond said. “It’s just not growing as fast and as dense as it usually does. In what’s a double whammy for them, they’re starting to have to feed animals.”

Tazewell County’s agriculture is approximately “80 percent feeder cattle production,” Harris said. Besides hay crops, the drought is also reducing the pasture foliage that makes cattle heavy enough to be profitable.

Profitability is impacted if farmers have to feed winter hay to their cattle now; this later forces them to buy feed. Harris said he knew of farmers in nearby Scott and Lee counties who are feeding winter hay to their animals now. If the drought continues, Tazewell County farmers will have to choose between buying feed or selling cattle early. And leaner cattle do not earn producers as much money has heavier ones.

“Markets are pretty good, but the calves now are young and light,” Harris said. “They’re usually sold in October when they’re 500 to 600 pounds. But if you had to sell right now, they’d weigh only 300 pounds.”

It’s still not too late. Rain in August and September could alleviate the drought’s impact, but “without rain it won’t happen,” he said.

Many vegetable gardens have been hit by a “double whammy,” too, Richmond said. Cold weather delayed getting gardens started, then the dry conditions reduced what wasn’t killed off by the cold. Keeping what’s left watered is a major chore, and gardeners who depend on wells must make a choice.

“A well could go dry. Do you save the water for your own use or do you water the garden?” Richmond said.

Recent rain has helped local gardeners, but like farmers, they say more is needed.

“I’m really fortunate that my garden sits in a low spot that retains moisture, but for about a month I had to water it. If I hadn’t it would have been just dried up,” said Mike Quick of Nemours, who keeps a 100 foot by 150 foot garden of corn, green beans, squash, cushaw, cucumbers, zucchinis and peppers. The summer’s dry spell has been especially bad.

“When you look at the small impoundments around here, they’re dry. Jimmy Lewis Lake isn’t far from here, and it’s way down,” Quick said.

Besides hay, pastures and vegetable crops, the drought is touching other operations depending on regular rainfall. For instance, Christmas tree farms are struggling, growers say.

Tree grower Gene Bailey of Camp Creek said the drought primarily affects trees that were planted this year.

“I’ve lost about 50 percent of what I’ve planted this year, and I expect to some more yet despite the rain we’ve had,” Bailey said.

Unlike other crops, trees do not show the affects of drought immediately; otherwise healthy-looking plants can die later, he said. Bigger trees are looking good; their deeper root systems make them less susceptible to dry weather.

Tree growers in other West Virginia counties are seeing even worse conditions. Bailey said a fellow grower in Lincoln County had seen only seven-tenths of an inch of rainfall. He had lost everything planted within the last two years.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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