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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Crops, people wilt in intense heat across southern Wisconsin
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Unlike other parts of the state, southern and central Wisconsin has seen few showers.
Credit:Nora G. Hertel

You don't need the weatherman or thermometer to tell you, it is hot and dry in Madison. Since thaws in January, this year has proved unusually warm. Temperatures may reach 100 F Thursday. Gardens and farms in the city feel it too. And the less than a half an inch of precipitation over June has left yards around town parched. To keep up, gardeners are busy watering two to three times a day to keep plants from wilting and dehydrating.

Madison has not seen a June this dry since 1988, says Chris Kucharik, associate professor of agronomy and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That year, he explains, "people would categorize as the last real catastrophic drought that happened in the Midwest, but it was much more widespread than what we're seeing this year."

Erratic temperatures this year already took a toll on the cherry crop in Door County. Orchards bloomed early with the March warmth and then suffered in subsequent freezes. Many farmers of soy and corn cautiously choose to plant at their usual time, says Kucharik. But a dry winter left little snow melt and little soil moisture for the plants to draw on, further straining the fields in this dry season.

"There are different kinds of stresses that can be put on a plant," says Claire Strader, farm director for Troy Community Farm. "There can be a water stress if there's either too much or not enough water in the soil. Certainly heat or cold temperature can be another stress as well. The more stresses there are, the more difficult it is for the plant to produce well."

In order to deal with the lack of rainfall, Strader and her crew have been making use of a new irrigation system on the four-acre farm, watering up to eight hours on some days -- or nights -- to avoid evaporation in the sun. The temperatures affect the staff as well as the crops, so they work between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. to avoid the hottest parts of the day.

Strader says seeds have to be planted every few weeks to fill the produce boxes for the farms's CSA members. The seeds require moist soil to germinate and grow but the irrigation, while necessary for the plants, causes some hassle.

"We are constantly moving around irrigation lines and turning on and off water, fixing leaks in the system," says Strader. "We have to time our weeding and our harvesting carefully, so that we're not in the sections that have been watered right after the water has been put down, because that's bad for the soil. You step in that wet soil it compacts it, makes it cloddy. It's taking a lot of time."

Strader also anticipates a much higher water bill for the farm. Since June 18, the Madison Water Utility has twice cautioned residents of the city to conserve water use. Kucharik would not be surprised if municipalities in south and central Wisconsin start limiting water use for lawns and backyard gardens.

On the plus side, a hot, dry summer will discourage and minimize the spread of diseases that affect tomato, pepper and squash plants, says Strader.

Unlike other parts of the state, southern and central Wisconsin has seen few showers. "A lot of the Midwest has actually gotten enough rainfall," says Kucharik, noting flooding around the western end of Lake Superior. "Obviously places like Duluth and Superior and central Minnesota have seen more than their fair share of rainfall -- they've had way too much."

The dramatic weather is once again raising concerns about the impact of climate change. A Climate Central report released on June 23 identifies Wisconsin and Minnesota among the states warming most rapidly since 1970.

While the warmth that began in late winter and continues through early summer serves as "an example of things that we can start to expect if climates continue to change," Kucharik cautions Wisconsin residents to remember that dry and hot stretches are normal. "It's very hard to take one particular year or one season and attribute that to longer term climate change trend," he says.

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