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Dry conditions affecting harvest sizes, foliage

Ray Marshalek of Marshalek’s Fruit Farm picks some peaches at the farm north of Montoursville on Monday. KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

The fall foliage and fruit and corn harvests are getting hammered by a lack of rain.

Leaves are already starting to lose their chlorophyll pigment.

On any street, the leaves are yellowing and falling off tree branches.

“It is hard to be optimistic for great fall coloration in the areas now under extreme drought because it has persisted for so long,” said Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology and physiology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

In 16 counties, most of them in western Pennsylvania, the vaunted fall foliage display may disappoint leaf peepers with early coloration of trees, browning and leaf fall, Abrams said.

Sixteen counties are under a drought watch, declared by the state Drought Task Force and the Department of Environmental Protection.

These counties include: Armstrong, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Fayette, Huntingdon, Indiana, Juniata, McKean, Mifflin, Perry and Potter.

In Lycoming County, conditions are resulting in slowed plant growth of crops and that can spell trouble for farmers because of lower yield. Abnormally dry conditions also mean lingering water deficits and some pastures and farms may not fully recover for the year, the Drought Monitor said.

Historically speaking, the worst drought Lycoming County suffered was a total of 68 weeks. It went on from July 31, 2001 and ended Nov. 12, 2002, the Drought Monitor said.

The most intense period during the historical drought was the week of Aug. 20, 2002.

For those who like to view leaves turning colors, all is not lost, but indications are the trees will have early color and dropping leaves now will not be foliated in mid-October, or the normal peak color season, he said.

Nature plays tricks, as some of the more drought-tolerant trees, including oaks, do not produce the spendid colors, Abrams said.

Sadly, the sugar maple, which is one of the more famous trees for fall color, is a drought-sensative tree, he said.

North of Williamsport, the red maple is starting to become affected and lose leaves, Abrams said.

The cooler temperatures ahead trigger deciduous trees to stop producing the green chlorophyll, the pigment responsible for photosynthesis, Abrams said. That is the exchange of light energy changed by plants to chemicals as carbon dioxide is breathed out by humans and animals and oxygen is a by-product of plants. The green material breaks down and disappears, unmasking other leaf pigments.

These other pigments are called xanthophylls and carotenes, and created the yellow and oranges seen in hickory, sycamore, honey locust, birch, beech and certain maples, Abrams said.

After the chlorophyll production stops, trees product anthocyanin that create brilliant reds and purposed in maple, sassafras, sumac, blackgum and scarlet oak, he said.

Fruit and corn have been hit by the dryness of July and August, two area farmers said.

“It is the lightest crop I’ve every had,” said Ray Marshalek of Marshalek’s Fruit Farm, 1875 Quaker State Road just north of Montoursville off Route 87.

A spring freeze hit the buds and drought-like conditions have hindered the fruit size.

“The trees are stressed,” he said.

For apples rain is needed so the fruit will size and that translates into higher volume.

The peaches are out for sale, are juicy and sugary, but there is a concern about apples. The nectarines, cherries and plums were non-existent.

“Apples are coming but we’re still going to be down in size if we don’t get more rain,” Marshalek said.

The volume isn’t there after picking the first crop — ginger golds — which were down substantially, he said.

The lack of rainfall in July and August is going to affect overall yield, he said. “If you don’t get size, volume is less. You’d be surprise what half and inch or inch of rain regularly will do.”

But Marshalek said it’s a regional issue.

Fruit farmers such as him dealt not only with lack of rain at harvest but also late seasonal feezes affecting the buds.

What makes a nice sweet apple or peach is a lot of sunshine, and just enough rain to size the crop, he said.

At Snyder’s Sweet Corn on Route 87 close to the borough of Montoursville, the sweet corn crop turned out sweet and with smaller ears.

“The dry weather affected the size of the ear,” said Scott Snyder at the farm.

As for the flavor, the sun makes it sweet and rain makes it grow, he said.

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