The designation is one step above drought; Wilmington seen 0.29 inches of rain so far in May, 2.7 inches below normal

After a record-setting drenching in 2018, Wilmington residents are probably happy they haven't seen much rain so far this year.

But as a few dry days has stretched out into a few weeks of abnormally rain-free weather, lawn and crop fields are starting to show signs of stress.

This time last year, more than 24 inches of rain had fallen on the Wilmington area -- about 33 percent more than is recorded in a normal year through the third week of May. Farmers and other Wilmington-area residents were en route to a record annual rainfall -- 102.4 inches when the year closed out some seven months later.

But as of this week, only 10.9 inches of rain had fallen in the Port City, well below the nearly 17 inches recorded at this juncture in a more normal year.

The result is that all of Southeastern North Carolina, and most of Eastern North Carolina, has been designated as "abnormally dry" by the U.S. Drought Monitor -- one classification away from being declared in drought.

And things don't look like they'll be improving soon.

Mark Willis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Wilmington office, said the local forecast doesn't call for any rain for at least the next week.

The national Climate Prediction Center, which offers forecasts up to 14 days out, shows only a slight probability of above-average precipitation for our region in the next two weeks.

"The reasoning behind the dry, warm weather is high pressure dominating the area both at the surface and in the upper parts of the atmosphere," Willis wrote in an email. "This is leading to sinking motion -- or subsidence -- in the atmosphere, which will prevent much in the way of precipitation."

That subsidence also means higher-than average temperatures. Willis said while a small front Saturday will cool things off slightly with ocean winds, temperatures are forecast to go back to the mid-90s Sunday and Monday.

Start the sprinklers

Homeowners need to start watering if they haven’t been irrigating already, said Michael Lanier of Old River Farms near Burgaw. Old River Farms is a traditional farm that has also branched out into nursery plants and agritourism.

“This time of year, you’re going to want to water every day,” Lanier said. “Water really heavy early in the morning. You want to get the water on the plants while it’s as cool as possible outside. You don’t want water sitting on plants when it’s really hot because sometimes that water can actually damage foliage, especially on flowering plants.”

Better in the early morning than at night, though Lanier said at this time of year and in this part of the country it doesn’t really matter too much. “Still, early in the morning is best so water isn’t sitting on plants all night long,” he said, which could cause mold problems, a situation that is more pronounced farther south.

When it comes to watering lawns, don’t be stingy, said Brandon Lutz, who is an account manager for local landscape services company Yard-Nique; soak the ground thoroughly, and do so at least three times a week until we get some significant rainfall.

“Always before daylight,” Lutz said of the irrigation. “You want to get the water down into the roots before the sun comes up. When the sun comes up, the grass is waking up, the same as we are, and if the water is not already in the soil, you are basically just shooting in the wind,” he counseled.

As with blooming plants, early morning watering is better than overnight watering, which can cause fungus problems, Lutz said.

Watching the skies

For local farmers, the rain shortfall is not too worrying … yet, according to Pender County Extension Director Mark Seitz.

There is enough sub-surface moisture to give soybeans a good start, he said, and corn appears to be doing fine, though the crop will need some rain between now and tasseling -- a major step in determining the ultimate yield, Seitz said. Early-planted corn will begin tasseling in the next two weeks or so, he said, and growers are hoping for a good soaking rain before that process gets underway.

The dry weather is benefiting the area’s relatively small wheat crop, Seitz said. There is not a great deal of wheat being grown this year due to excessive rain during last fall’s planting.

Berry yields, blueberries in particular, have already been determined, Seitz noted, a process that was somewhat compromised by an ill-timed cold spell during blossoming earlier this year. While the current dry weather can present some problems for growers, most of the large commercial operations in berry-rich Sampson, Columbus, Bladen and Pender counties irrigate the expensive berries.

In fact, Seitz noted, berry growers worry about a soaking rain at this point in the crop’s development. Berries can take in too much water too fast from a heavy rain, he said, resulting in ruinous splitting of the fruit.

Irrigation helps the crop, but its added expense hurts the bottom line. So, too, does the hot weather that has arrived early this year. Harvesting berries in 90-degree and near 90-degree temperatures means that post-harvest chillers have to work longer and harder, adding to the expense side of the ledger.

Hurricane Florence damaged quite a lot of bushes last fall, Seitz said, and 2019 yields in the blueberry belt are likely to fall about 25 to 30 percent below a good year, he noted. Additionally, Georgia is reporting a banner crop, and those berries will put price pressure on the local crop, as well.

Still, “so far, it hasn’t been a huge problem,” Seitz said of the dryness. “But if we don’t get some rain soon, it will be. If we don’t see some significant rain in the next 10 days to two weeks, then we are going to see some potential yield loss,” especially in corn.

Staff writer Cammie Bellamy contributed reporting.

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