Farmers can't make it without rain. But after six soggy months of soakers, many aren't certain they can survive with it, either.
University of Georgia scientists and county Extension Service agents say the latest round of El Ni¤o rains have virtually ended farmers' struggles to harvest cotton and delayed planting of this year's crops.
"This last rain has pretty well wrapped up our cotton harvest," said Ronnie Barentine, Pulaski County extension agent. "I don't think many (farmers) will try to get any more cotton in."
Barentine said Pulaski County farmers had picked most of their cotton. Statewide, agricultural officials say 10,000 acres or more have been abandoned, and cotton losses may go as high as $200 million.
"We have less than 1,000 acres still in the fields," he said. "The grades were already so poor they were only getting 25-30 cents a pound for it." Cotton sold for around 70 cents a pound as the harvest began last fall.
Over the first weekend in March, many areas of the state got six inches of rain or more. Screven County Extension Agent Lamar Zipperer said the rains hurt the cotton harvest hopes of only a few farmers in his county.
"The biggest damage these last rains have done to cotton is to next year's crop," Zipperer said. "Normally, we'd have much of the land prepared for planting cotton by now.
"We'd have the fields harrowed and bedded for cotton and start in on planting corn, then wait around a while before getting into planting cotton and peanuts," he said. "But it's not going to be that way this year. We're going to be scrambling. It may be that some crops will get planted this year without the land preparation and fertilization they normally get."
The state's $159 million corn crop will be late getting planted, too.
"Typically, the third and fourth weeks of March make up the most active time of corn planting here," he said. "But we won't make that this year. If it stops raining right now and turns off sunny and hot instead of cold, we still won't make that."
Dewey Lee, a grains agronomist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said planting corn after the normal late March and early April planting dates in south Georgia can lead to quality losses up to 1 percent per day.
Barentine said the rains will push his farmers' watermelon and cantaloupe planting back, too.
"We should be getting fields ready to put melon transplants in right now," he said. "But we can't get into the fields. This rain has put us off at least another week. Ordinarily, we'd be transplanting next week. The longer the transplants stay in the greenhouse, the bigger they get and the more susceptible they are to bad weather."
The state's wheat crop continues to struggle, too.
"All this rainy, cloudy weather won't let it grow," Barentine said. "We're not getting enough sunshine, and nitrogen is leaching out. We can't topdress it except with aerial application. That's just an extra expense with a crop that doesn't look good already."
When all the damage has been counted up, Zipperer figures the hardest-hit has been the farmers' psyche.
"It's kind of like going to war you've got to get psyched up about winning when you set out. But El Ni¤o has just about knocked the breath out of a lot of these boys," he said. "That's a real problem. Among other things, you've got to have the right attitude for the credit to flow. It's a tough way to start the year."