'Exceptional' drought wreaks havoc in southwest Georgia

DAWSON — Early this year, when the dew was still cool, the air still fresh, a handful of farmers gathered here. With them was a preacher. They bowed their heads and implored the Almighty for that most divine of gifts, rain.

They figured it was prudent. Last year had been dry as a mannequin's eye.

But did the Lord listen?

Neil Lee, one of the growers in that small congregation, stood on the edge of a non-irrigated peanut field recently outside Dawson, 170 miles southwest of Atlanta. To the untrained eye, the plants looked pretty good — green, leafy, thick. Lee knew better.

He yanked a plant from the soil. Its roots ended in a puny collection of undersized pods dripping dried dirt. They were single nuts, not multiple peanuts that are the sign of healthy growth.

"In July, this was the prettiest field I had," said Lee, 31, whose family farms about 6,000 acres. "Now, it looks about dead."

For Georgia farmers, 2012 is shaping up to be another dry year in spite of recent cloudbursts that have dampened fields across the state. Those thunderstorms, say growers, have come at a propitious time: The extra rainfall is crucial in the final weeks before they harvest cotton and peanuts, two of Georgia's agricultural staples.

At the same time, some farmers are anticipating a great year. New figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show this year's peanut crop in Georgia could break records. Growers credit irrigation and late-summer showers for the anticipated bumper crop.

"Things do look better," said Brian Creswell, an agricultural extension agent in Early County in South Georgia. "But I haven't heard anybody complaining about there being too much rain yet."

Those summer storms are hardly enough to quench a drought that has lingered across the state for more than two years. Georgia, like a great stretch of the mid-western United States, is still dry. The National Weather Service said more than half the state is in a drought, with nearly 20 percent in the most severe category, "exceptional drought."

Longtime growers say this extended drought reminds them of the killer season of 1977, when corn withered, peanuts dried in the soil and cotton bolls curled in defeat. That was back when few growers irrigated, trusting nature to provide.

These days, growers with non-irrigated fields may feel their trust was misplaced. Terrell County farmer Edd Greene, who planted 850 acres of peanuts this year, is one. Nearly half his crops were "dry row," not irrigated. He harvested them early because the ground was too dry to support the plants any longer.

"They're sorry-looking peanuts," said Greene. "It's been a tough year."

A tough year across the state, but especially in Central and South Georgia, the heart of the state's $12 billion agricultural industry. Of that amount, about 60 percent represents row crops, peanuts, cotton and other commodities that need frequent rainfall or irrigation to thrive.

Weather maps show a diagonal band of dry counties, from east to the Alabama line. Along that diagonal, creeks are low, tapped out by irrigation pumps. Some farm ponds are mud-cracked bowls. Even kudzu, whose green tendrils can ensnare anything that doesn't move, looks lifeless.

It will take more than a few thunderstorms to make things right, said state Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black.

"The recent rains are a blessing," said Black, who visited Southwest Georgia earlier this month. "It's underneath the ground that we're still worried about."

Almost half of Georgia's 3.8 million harvested croplands are irrigated. This places an immense demand on water supplies already tapped by cities, towns and industries.

Two years of substandard rainfall have lowered groundwater levels, said Mark Masters, who monitors Flint River water usage for the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center. The region served by the Flint — from roughly Macon to the Florida line in the southwest corner of Georgia — relies on wet winters to replenish water supplies in the river as well as in the Upper Floridan, an aquifer that provides water across South Georgia. Last year, Masters said, those rains never came.

"It could recharge with some normal rainfall, but that hasn't been seen in a long, long time," he said. "I think a lot of producers knew it would be a tough year, going in" to the 2012 growing season.

Growers understand the peril facing them if groundwater levels don't improve, said Bill Starr, an agricultural extension agent in Sumter County in Southwest Georgia. It's listed in the "exceptional" drought category, despite a recent downpour that dumped 4 inches of rain on some areas.

"The rains have been nice," he said. "But we're always a week away from a drought."

‘Drought affects everybody’

The sky filled with clouds white and fluffy as new bales of cotton. A hot wind blew from the east, rattling shocks of corn brown and ready for pulling. A red Case combine crawled through the corn, cutting a swath eight rows wide, collecting hard, yellow kernels.

Inside the cab sat Donald Chase, 47, who's been farming in Macon County for more than 20 years. This year, he planted 1,600 acres in corn and peanuts in Central Georgia.

Those fat clouds, said Chase, seldom delivered the rain he and others needed. Chase, like an estimated 75 percent of Georgia farmers, used irrigation to fill in the dry spells. It's been costly and time-consuming.

"I haven't been able to go anywhere all summer," said Chase, his left hand light on the steering wheel of his combine. He turned the machine around and aimed it a faint line of pines 1,000 yards away. "This drought affects everybody -- everybody."

He estimated that his corn field would yield 230 bushels per acre, a fine haul by any standard. He pre-sold most of the corn to area dairies and feed mills for $6 per bushel.

Now, with the season waning, Chase said he still had to deduct the costs of watering from his profits, and that could be expensive.

"And this year," he said, "I started irrigating in March."

The drought is a recurring topic in Oglethorpe, the county seat of Macon. It's a small town, a handful of streets surrounded by farms. Downtown Oglethorpe has two restaurants, a hairdresser's salon and a handsome brick courthouse with a white cupola framing a bell that still works. It's the home of Oglethorpe Hardware, where people gather in the early hours to drink free coffee, swap jokes and play with Miss Blackie, the store's amiable cat.

They also talk about the weather, said clerk Tim Ferguson.

"It's hurting all of us," said Ferguson, a minister at New Life Baptist Church in Oglethorpe, 120 miles south of Atlanta. The good folks at New Life, he said, regularly pray for rain.

"We were already hurting, with the way the economy is. This has only made it worse."

Shoppers know what the drought portends, said Linda Lashley, produce manager at the nearby Piggly Wiggly.

"I hear customers talking about it," said Lashley. "They say it [drought] will make prices go up."

For Crawford County farmer Jimmy Moncrief, this year's drought proved too costly before he even broke ground. He abandoned one field this spring after deciding he couldn't afford to irrigate it.

He's been a grower in and around Roberta, 30 miles west of Macon, for more than three decades. These dry days, Moncrief wonders why he bothers. "It's so time-consuming and stressful," said Moncrief, 63. "Farming's not an occupation; it's a disease."

‘Way of surviving’

It's all Al Breedlove has done for the past 42 years, and all he ever plans to do. On a recent morning, Breedlove guided his F-150, its dash brown with dust, along the edge of a Terrell County cotton field. In the distance, an irrigation sprinkler reached 400 yards across a swath of green. It looked like a snake, rising in a series of arcs, hissing water. It spat 900 gallons a minute.

Like others, Breedlove has watched thunderstorms form, then break apart as they approach the tracts where he and his son, Jeremy, have planted corn, peanuts and cotton.

Unlike some others, the 66-year-old farmer has remained philosophical; four decades of watching the sky does that. "Nature," he said, "has a way of surviving."

So do farmers. And so those who measure their lives by water and sun, by planting and harvest, will surely gather again to ask God for that divine blessing. Rain, Lord, and plenty of it.