Published on 09/29/97

Dry Weather Costly for Georgia Farmers

Georgia farmers have suffered through a dry spell just when they need water the most -- when their plants are trying to set a crop.

This year, many farmers were looking forward to a "normal" year. There were some dry spots, but overall they had enough rain to make their crops through mid-July and early August. Then the regular rains stopped.

University of Georgia Extension Service scientists and economists figure dry-weather losses in peanuts, pecans and cotton at $56 million. And that figure climbs higher with each new day without rain.

Peanuts have been especially hard hit. The crop got off to a hard start with a viral disease, tomato spotted wilt, in nearly every peanut field.

"I'd call it 100 percent, but some fields had less infection than others. So losses won't be nearly that high," said John Beasley, an extension agronomist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Now that peanuts have set their crop, the dry weather is hindering the harvest. Beasley said the soil in about 25 percent of the peanut region contains lots of clay. When it dries out, "that ground becomes extremely hard. Trying to put digger blades into the ground," he said, "is almost like trying to put them into concrete."

The dry ground can pull peanuts off the vines as they're dug out of the soil, so they can't be harvested. "It really adds insult to injury," he said.

On Sept. 1, the National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated that Georgia farmers would average 2,650 pounds, down from earlier estimates of nearly 2,800 pounds. That's a loss of about $15.6 million so far.

Pecans are suffering, too, said Tom Crocker, an extension horticulturist. Dry weather through late August and early September cut production by as much as 5 million pounds per week. Crocker figures that since the first week of September, Georgia pecan farmers have lost about $7.5 million.

Cotton production is suffering, too, said Steve Brown, an extension agronomist. He expects the average yield will drop to about 700 pounds per acre, causing a loss of $34 million.

The dry weather is affecting soybeans as well. Usually, the seeds are developing and filling out in the pods during mid-September, said extension agronomist John Woodruff. But this year the pods and even leaves are falling off the stems.

"It's really turned around since early August," Woodruff said. "But given some rainfall, most of the crop could rebound and give us some pretty good yields."

An often-overlooked crop that is having a rough time: pastures. "We've got farmers having to feed hay now rather than in November, when they usually start," said Robert Stewart, an extension animal scientist.

The weather has hit cattlemen a double blow. With pastures playing out early, the grass for hay hasn't grown, either. Farmers are having to feed hay earlier and don't have as much of it, either, to carry them through the winter.

One crop has escaped damage. Most of the corn had matured before the rains ended. Extension agronomist Dewey Lee said more than 75 percent of the state's corn is harvested.

"The remaining corn is primarily in north Georgia," he said. "And some of that is suffering from a lack of moisture. But overall, it's going to be a good year."