It rained overnight; should you prepare for drought? Yes, but only if you’re concerned about the long-term health of your business.

It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Whether you embrace the concept of climate change or believe we’re merely experiencing natural cycles, there’s no denying that in past years drought has taken its toll on the green industry. It’s not only the plants that suffer when much-needed moisture is hard to come by: With drought come water restrictions; with water restrictions come canceled contracts. When drought hits, the green industry struggles to stay alive. Prolonged sieges can cost thousands of jobs, force companies to close and deny already-strapped states’ coffers millions of dollars in revenue.

Depicts large-scale trends based on subjectively derived probabilities guided by short- and long-range statistical and dynamical forecasts. Short-term events — such as individual storms — cannot be accurately forecast more than a few days in advance. Use caution for applications — such as crops — that can be affected by such events. “Ongoing” drought areas are approximated from the Drought Monitor (D1 to D4 intensity). For weekly drought updates, see the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. NOTE: the green improvement areas imply at least a 1-category improvement in the Drought Monitor intensity levels, but do not necessarily imply drought elimination.

NOAA-the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-predicts that drought will persist or intensify across a significant portion of the Southwest,parts of Georgia and South Carolina and up through the Eastern Seaboardthrough the end of August. The good news is that there are pockets of improvement,and much of the central nation is expected to experience little drought impact.
Map courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

If you operate in a region that hasn’t been affected, you’re lucky. But that doesn’t mean your water supply will continue to be plentiful. It’s a tricky balance of rainfall events and reserves, plus the demand that other regions put on your water source. Colorado doesn’t own all rights to the Colorado River; the Great Lakes region may appear to be awash, but surrounding states and those downstream lay claim to the seemingly bountiful supply.

Then there’s your competition. No, not Joe Blower or Grower, but the scores of other users whose needs often seem to take priority over those of the plants you grow and tend. Municipalities are quick to restrict landscape watering during dry periods but may look the other way if a bottling plant is nearby, or even if business at a popular carwash appears to be threatened. It’s not fair, but it happens.

So what will happen this year?

A West Coast example

In California, the Department of Water Resources reported that snowpack water content was only 40 percent of normal on May 1. (For the same date last year, it was 190 percent.) That doesn’t necessarily equate to 40 percent less water available; it’s a complicated equation. Snowpack accounts for about one third of the state’s water supply, and reservoirs benefited from last year’s wet winter.

“The fact that we just had a dry winter right after an unusually wet season last year shows that we must be prepared for all types of weather,” stated Mark Cowin, the agency’s director. “Reservoir storage will mitigate the impact of dry conditions on water supply this summer,” he continued, “but we have to plan for the possibility of a consecutive dry year in 2013.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, created and hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the long range outlook for much of California (at least through the end of August) is “drought to persist or intensify” (see map 24). However, the intensity rating as of mid-May ranged from “abnormally dry” through “moderate” to “severe,” and the impact type is categorized throughout the state as “short-term.” That “short-term” designation is less than 6 months, and it means that crops and natural areas are most likely to feel the impact, rather than the region’s hydrology or overall ecology.

These ratings can change from week to week, and the Golden State does not appear to be in immediate danger of experiencing “exceptional” drought. That is, unless conditions worsen considerably. Which may happen. Or not.

The rest of us

The Upper Midwest appears poised to escape drought conditions for the next few months, although the Chicago area has experienced record dry precipitation so far in 2012. In the same “safe” region, rainfall in the Twin Cities was below average at the beginning of the year, but caught up and surpassed previous long-term average precipitation. In mid-May, the amounts appeared to close in on the wettest (1911) and second wettest (1965) years.

Records for New York’s Central Park indicate well-below average rainfall in 2012, but the area was excessively wet during the same months last year. Considering the way rainfall events – or lack thereof – and reserves both contribute to supply, one might assume last year’s contribution would mitigate this year’s conditions. Still, NOAA predicts ongoing drought through the summer months.

Down south in Georgia, NOAA indicates “drought to persist or intensify” in the next few months, with the exception of a band of “drought ongoing, some improvement” in the southern portion of the state. The agency’s National Climatic Data Center reports less-than-average rainfall of only 11.61 inches – since January. For the same period last year, the state received 15.49 inches.

We’d like to believe the weather gods will be kind, but we know better. So no matter your location, a contingency plan for dealing with drought should be a basic part of operations. Think of it as your savings account, except it’s a bit upside-down. You’re careful to plan ahead and put a little bit away for a rainy day. Where water’s concerned, though, you plan ahead in case it doesn’t rain. It’s just good business.

Cutting your losses

You’ve designed your production areas strategically and have done your best to conserve resources. Even so, drought conditions and local authorities sooner or later may dictate how you manage operations. If you reach the point where you’re required to restrict or eliminate watering on portions of the nursery, consider the following alternatives offered by Ted Bilderback, professor in the department of horticultural science at North Carolina State University and director of the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. Since 1977, his research and extension programs have focused on environmentally conscious cultural practices for growing nursery stock, with an emphasis on plant-water relations.

Select plants that can tolerate less frequent irrigation. Where daily irrigation is a standard practice, choosing plants that will receive irrigation every other day will cut water consumption in those areas in half. Junipers or crops grown under shade, such as rhododendrons, probably will grow well under every-other-day (or even less frequent) irrigation cycles.

Prioritize nursery crops by their profitability potential. Every nursery has some crops that are profitable and others that are marginal or that lose money. Crops that make money should be irrigated to maximize profits, and marginal crops or loss leaders should not be irrigated.

Consider the restocking cost of crops. Propagation and stock material for some crops may be difficult to obtain. If cuttings and liners are expensive, such as patented, trademarked or otherwise specially designated cultivars, irrigation of these crops should be continued; but discontinued for plants that are readily available in the trade by obtaining new cuttings. This assumes, of course, that economic margins and production costs for patented plants are inherently higher than for industry standards. Eliminating containers using the above criteria may require moving blocks of plants in and out of irrigation zones according to their assigned fate.

Analyze inventory related to crops and size availability. Several sizes of the same cultivar of plant may be included in the inventory. Eliminating one or two sizes of plants is a consideration. Liners, quarts and 1-gallon plants are worth less than those in larger container sizes, and if blocks are spread out, they may be irrigated in a less efficient manner. Most nursery crops can be propagated in fall and winter months, so loss of liners may be only a six-month setback rather than a full growing season.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this. But if it does – and you’re prepared – you’ll be ready to weather the storm and emerge with a healthy inventory ready for sale.