Published on 09/10/98

Earl Brings Damaging Winds, Needed Rain to State's Farms

University of Georgia scientists said the rain Hurricane Earl dropped across the state provided desperately needed water to Georgia crops. But we could have done without the wind.

The wind hit Georgia cotton hard, said Steve Brown, an Extension Service agronomist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"We've seen fields with 40 to 50 pounds -- maybe up to 75 pounds -- of the lint on the ground," Brown said. Rain saturated the cotton and made it fall more easily when the wind hit it.

Fortunately, most of the crop was not yet defoliated. "Since the leaves were still on plants in so many fields," Brown said, "they protected the lint from getting blown off."

Brown said the '98 crop is ahead of usual. Hot weather has made bolls mature faster, "so there's a bit more ready than usual at this time. Earl provided rain we needed in late-planted nonirrigated fields that were getting mighty dry."

UGA peanut scientist  John Baldwin said much the same thing: fields were getting dry. The rain was "a little late for a lot of the crop," Baldwin said. "But it's almost always welcome."

Hot, dry weather made peanuts mature faster, too, he said. Some farmers had already dug some fields in preparation for harvesting.

"Now, with another system brewing (in the Gulf of Mexico), farmers are making plans to make sure they can get their peanuts out of the field without quality loss," he said.

The rains, though, will help finish out a lot of Georgia's peanuts. "The weather from now through the beginning of October will make or break our peanuts this year," Baldwin said.

Many Georgia farmers still have 1997 fresh on their minds. It started raining last year in mid-September and didn't stop long enough to harvest until April.

"They remember that clearly," Baldwin said. "And they're making harvest plans with that possibility in mind."

The experts say Earl was good for cattle farmers, too. "Our pastures were very dry," said Robert Stewart, an Extension Service animal scientist. "This rain will allow many of our farmers to make another cutting of hay, which almost all of them are short on."

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HURRICANE EARL hit pecan trees after the rains swept across the state. Cyclonic winds damaged trees by breaking limbs and knocking off nuts. One farmer reported 200 trees down in his orchards. (Photo courtesy the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

The rain also helped refill many farm ponds and branches that supply water to Georgia cattle herds.

Extension horticulturist Gerard Krewer said the rain couldn't have come at a better time for next year's blueberry crop. The bushes are setting fruit buds now, he said, and their water need was critical.

Earl wasn't as kind, though, to crops higher above the ground. Pecan trees were hard-hit.

"We've seen orchards where as many as 200 trees were blown down," said Tom Crocker, an extension pecan horticulturist. "Cyclonic winds that spun off Earl damaged trees and knocked off a lot of pecans."

The worst effect on pecans was that the winds came after the rain. Up to 8 inches of rain saturated and softened the soil in pecan orchards. That made the trees more vulnerable to the 60 mph winds that came after the skies had cleared.

"A lot of us breathed a sigh of relief a bit too early," Crocker said. "The wind really caught us off guard, although there was nothing we could have done to prevent the wind damage."

Crocker said so far, pecan farmers from Lee, Houston, Sumter and Ben Hill counties report the most damage. "But we're not certain yet how that damage will affect the crop this year," he said.