On the National Weather Service’s map of drought conditions, a line snakes across Illinois, just touching the southeast corner of McHenry County.
Below, the state has turned completely white, signifying – in the aftermath of a long, hot summer – that conditions have returned to normal. Above the line is yellow, showing that, while a late-winter surge of snow was vital in preparing the earth for spring planting, the county hasn’t made it all the way back just yet.
“Subsoil moisture needs improvement, but the surface soil is adequate for the time being,” Marengo farmer John Bartman said. “I’m a bit concerned that if we do have a dry June or July, that’s going to be tough.”
Bartman is hopeful that temperatures will continue to hover around 50 degrees. If so, he said, he could be out farming in a couple of weeks.
What a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, some farmers already had hit the fields to start planting, while others simply were waiting for their crop insurance to kick in.
A stretch of warm weather pushed up the spring routine last year, but continued heat and a lack of rain caused problems as the summer wore on. McHenry County spent the back end of the summer and front end of fall flirting with red on the weather service’s map, which signifies extreme drought.
When the new year hit, the county had been downgraded to a drought classification of severe. It was still under moderate drought conditions at the beginning of March.
But conditions continue to improve, and Bartman is approaching the season with optimism. When he heads out on his 700 acres of Marengo land, he’ll start by planting sweet corn, then corn, then move to wheat, soybeans and vegetables. He said he thinks there’s a “great possibility for a normal growing season.”
Michele Aavang, a Greenwood farmer and president of the McHenry County Farm Bureau, said the condition of her farmland is improving as well, but the tops of hills are still fairly dry.
“I think that what we really need is to see some warmer temperatures to warm up the soil,” Aavang said last week. “At night, it’s still below freezing, so that doesn’t help.”
Harvard farmer Harry Alten added that the frozen ground caused some of the snow to evaporate or run off before soaking into the earth. Alten said he’s looking to start planting toward the end of the month or early May.
“As far as moisture is concerned, I think we’ll be OK to get the crops in,” he said. “But it will require rains after that.”
All in all, McHenry County farmers have returned to a more normal schedule after an accelerated 2012 season.
“Last year was such an anomaly,” Bartman said. “We were planting early. That doesn’t happen very often in McHenry County.
“The thought of planting in March is crazy.”
On the Net
For the National Weather Service’s map of drought conditions, visit www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/Drought.