Milton Stewart, 79, has several hay fields in and around Gordon county that have been decimated by drought and armyworms. Northwest Georgia is the hardest hit corner of drought-plagued Georgia. Some counties have lost 85% of hay and cotton crops to drought and army worms. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

North Georgia farmers feeling the pain of the drought of 2016

“You come out early in the morning, kick the grass and you can see the infestation,” said Stewart, a cattleman in Gordon and Floyd counties whose Oostanaula Farms is under attack. “They’ve done a lot of damage. They’ve already eaten this field pretty well up.”

Georgia’s northwest corner has been hit hardest by the drought of 2016 with withered crops, low-flow creeks, cattle sell-offs and desperate farmers seeking hay from Tennessee or South Georgia while applying for federal disaster assistance. Now, on top of the too-warm and too-dry weather, comes the armyworm munching voraciously across already spent pastures and hay fields.

One of Stewart’s low-cut fields looked to be swaying in the breeze last week. Except there was no breeze, just worms on the march.

“I don’t remember a drought and armyworm infestation as bad as this,” said Stewart, 79. “I’ve never seen anything like it in the last 60 years.”

The state declared a Level 1 drought earlier this month for 53 North Georgia counties. Beyond alerting the public that it’s hot and dry, the warning means little. Water utilities must tell customers about drought conditions and how to curtail water usage. Georgians may still only water lawns between 4 p.m. and 10 a.m.

Yet the region remains under a “severe” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with many counties, including Gordon and Floyd,experiencing “extreme” drought. Unlike the Great Drought of 2007-09, when Lake Lanier resembled a low-flow toilet and the heavens were beseeched for rain, this year’s drought is more fickle.

Atlantans may cuss the never-ending summer, including a record 73-day stretch when the temperature never dipped below 70 degrees, but the drought hasn’t really imposed hardship. Go a little north, or south, of the Perimeter, though, and it’s another world where farmers, weathermen and county extension agents look pleadingly skyward through furrowed brows. And, with little rain on the horizon and temperatures remaining stubbornly high, the fall and winter months may offer little relief.

“I’ve been a county agent for 22 years and this has been one of the tougher growing seasons I have seen. We’re in pretty bad shape,” said Greg Bowman, the University of Georgia’s agricultural agent in Gordon County. “It’s imperative we get some good winter rains to help build some moisture because we are dry deep down in the ground. We’re going to need that next spring.”

Bill Murphey, the state’s climatologist, pinpoints the region’s troubles to March when, after a wet winter, the rains tapered off. Then came the heat — about 85 days when temperatures hit 90 degrees or higher beginning in May. The heat also sucked moisture from the soil and plants (a process called evapo-transpiration) into the atmosphere. Lack of rain reduced many North Georgia streams to a trickle.

Reports of crop and livestock damage in Walker, Floyd, White and Hall counties began rolling in around mid-June, Murphey said. Farmers couldn’t make the year’s second hay cutting due to stunted fields. Some lactating cows suffered heat stress, with ribs visible.

Farmers in Franklin County lost entire corn crops and fed the desiccated stalks to livestock. Finally, by August, just about everybody was complaining of dead fields and lost dollars. About 80 percent of the hay fields in Murray and Whitfield burned up, according to the counties’ extension agent, Brenda Jackson. At least 60 percent of the soybeans were gone too.

Further south, in Gordon County, maybe three-fourths of the corn and hay was lost. Fescue grass is almost totally gone.

“Without hay, we’re limited on what we can feed livestock this winter, other than what producers can ship in from elsewhere,” Jackson said. “We’re measuring rainfall in the hundredths of an inch. Any little bit will help us get through.”

Climatologist Murphey labels the drought “an agricultural drought” lasting typically six months or less. If it persists, though, and turns into a longer-term “hydrological drought,” then the pain will spread beyond the farm to cities and suburbs.

Even the mountains, where the creeks typically run fast and trees usually cool the forest floor, weren’t immune from drought. Not this year.

“Our stream is the lowest I’ve ever seen,” said David Cantrell, 63, a trout farmer in the Rich Mountain Wilderness area east of Ellijay. “I’ve managed to keep alive so far, but I’m pumping a lot of water out of the ground. I’ve got two wells to supplement the creek and I started drilling another one this morning.”

Cantrell sells his rainbow, brown and brook trout fingerlings to private landowners who stock creeks and ponds. In a normal year, he’ll raise 150,000 trout. He’ll be lucky to get half that number this year.

Oostanaula’s Stewart expects to produce about 1,200 bales of hay, about half his usual harvest. He has culled his herd of 1,000 cows more aggressively than in years past. He’s hauling brewer’s mash from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in nearby Cartersville to supplement animal feed. And he has applied for federal disaster aid and expects to lose $150,000 this year due to the drought and its opportunistic comrade in arms, the armyworm.

The bugs, which can grow longer than an inch, alight annually as moths, but rarely in numbers seen this year in northwest Georgia. The drought-stressed, defenseless crops and grasses were no match for the worms, which can wipe out a 50-acre hay field within a week.

“It’s really like a one-two punch: first they get the drought, then the armyworms,” said Pam Knox, a University of Georgia climatologist. “They’re doubly-cursed up there.”

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