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Drought's hurting speciality crops, too

Jeff Caldwell 07/31/2012 @ 8:25am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

This summer's drought has the corn and soybean crops hurting badly. But, they're not the only crops taking a massive hit from the heat and dryness. Many specialty crops are struggling to get through the drought, even under irrigation, specialists in Indiana say.

"Indiana irrigation systems have not been designed for the extreme conditions of this summer, and it has been difficult to get enough water on all the crops when they need it," says Purdue Extension horticulture specialist Liz Maynard in a university report. "The high temperatures also add additional stress that can reduce yield or quality even for crops that are irrigated."

Everything from tree fruits, grapes and berries to melons and tomatoes are taking a major hit this summer. Here's a rundown, according to Maynard, of how these crops are being affected, according to a university report:

  • Tree fruits: Tree fruits, such as peaches and apples, have been some of the least affected by the heat and drought. Purdue horticulture professor Peter Hirst explained that water is important in the first month of plant development because the fruit is the primary recipient of water. The drought currently is affecting shoot growth much more than fruit growth. Shoots are not growing at their normal rate, which can be beneficial for trees because less pruning is needed and the fruit has more opportunity to receive sunlight.
  • Berries: Irrigation is typical for berry crops, including strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. But the extreme conditions might have made it difficult for irrigation systems to keep up with the crops, said Bruce Bordelon, Purdue Extension horticulture specialist. The hot temperatures cause berries to ripen quickly and may result in soft, less flavorful fruit. Reduced soil moisture also can reduce berry size.
  • Grapes: The weather is now beginning to pose a serious problem for the grape crops. Well-established vineyards have deep, extensive root systems and, until recently, vines were showing only slight drought stress. Bordelon said dry weather usually increases fruit quality because there is less fruit rot, and sugar concentration within the fruit is increased. But with the extended drought and heat, vineyards are beginning to show signs of stress. Young vines are dropping leaves, while older vines are showing stress on hot, sunny days. Rain is needed soon or the crop might not ripen.
  • Cantaloupe and watermelon: Watermelon has suffered because of reduced fruit set and yield. Purdue Extension specialist Dan Egel estimates that about half of watermelon fields are not irrigated. Recent rainfall aided some watermelon fields but came too late for others. Cantaloupes have not been as seriously affected by the drought because most fields are irrigated. Some cantaloupes, however, have suffered from the extreme heat.
  • Tomatoes: Despite proper irrigation, tomatoes have been affected by the weather. Like berries, the heat has made it difficult to keep tomato crops well watered, Maynard said. When there are lapses in irrigation, the tomato may develop blossom-end rot, a disease that occurs when the fruit receives insufficient calcium and shows as a dark lesion on the bottom of the fruit. During seasons of drought, there may be sufficient calcium in the soil, but the lack of water prevents the calcium from reaching the fruit.

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