Drought’s effects intensify in Charlotte area

It’s been a half century since Keith Westmoreland can remember conditions so bad on his family’s farm near Huntersville.

“We’ve gone from two years ago producing over 200 bushels of corn an acre to 60 bushels an acre yesterday,” Westmoreland said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor released its latest maps, showing that the summerlong statewide drought is most intense in the counties immediately west of Mecklenburg. Two more neighboring counties, Gaston and Lincoln, were raised to the “severe drought” level, joining Cleveland, Rutherford and Polk counties. Mecklenburg remains in a “moderate drought.”

“This is the worst I’ve seen it since I was a kid,” Westmoreland, 56, said of the impact on the corn he raises for animal feed on about 240 acres near N.C. 73.

Westmoreland said he doesn’t expect to break even on his family’s investment in their silage crop this summer, and that’s not including the usual equipment-maintenance and other upcoming expenses.

Rain has been scarce in the region this summer. Total rainfall this year is 7 inches below normal, according to the National Weather Service in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.

“Charlotte was slightly above normal to late April, and around May 3 we went below the normal curve and have stayed below ever since,” NWS meteorologist Neil Dixon said Thursday.

Based on what Nelson McCaskill has seen of the drought’s impact on Mecklenburg farms and gardens, “I put my two cents in for ‘severe’ about two months ago,” the county extension director said. “The effects of the drought are severe, regardless of whether we’re designated severe, and that goes for homeowners and gardeners, too.”

The drought has delayed the opening of Historic Rural Hill’s largest annual fundraiser, the “Amazing Maize Maze ” on Neck Road in north Mecklenburg.

The path of the 7-acre maze is typically cut through corn stalks as high as the walls of a house. It was supposed to open this Friday, but the drought stunted the corn. The opening has been delayed to Oct. 3, in hopes more rain will fall, temperatures will cool and the crop will grow, said Rural Hill Executive Director Jeff Fissel.

Stalks that should be 8 to 12 feet high are only 4 feet tall, Fissel said on a tour of the maze Wednesday. Some of the stalks have barely grown at all, and Fissel said visitors could accidentally step on them and kill them if the maze opened this weekend.

The event, which runs through Nov. 1, has not faced such a withered crop since it debuted in 1998, Fissel said.

“We plant a drought-resistant corn each year and do everything we can to keep water on the 7-acre field, but all of our efforts were not enough this summer,” he said.

The maze raises about $260,000 a year, or about $150,000 after expenses, Fissel said. Rural Hill’s annual budget is about $800,000.

The maze has already been created, although visitors should expect it to look different than in previous years given the shorter corn, he said. “The maze will still be the maze, and we will do everything we can to ensure a great experience,” he said.

Rural Hill also raises hay on about 100 acres.

This spring, Rural Hill produced 1,600 square bales of hay and 70 round bales, most of which goes to the nearby Latta Equestrian Center. Last week: 16 round bales and no square bales, Fissel said.

He said local farmers will have to get hay from Canada and the Midwest to compensate for shortfalls.

Some smaller farms curb drought problems by using drip irrigation to grow vegetables, including Bluebird Farm in Morganton and A Way of Life Farm in Bostic, Rutherford County. They sell at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market and elsewhere and reported they’ve been spared so far.

Still, the drought has had one unexpected effect: Holes were gnawed in their plastic irrigation drip tape by thirsty rodents.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak