Ga. Drought Damaging Crops, Jacking Up Irrigation Expenses

June 8, 2007

The sky above Randy Scarbor’s south Georgia cantaloupe fields was overcast, but the clouds were from massive wildfires to the east.

May 2007 set records for dry conditions in Georgia.

Across the main crop-producing regions of Georgia, the most severe drought in decades – on the heels of an early April frost – is damaging crops and cutting even deeper into farmers’ pockets because of the high price of fuel to operate irrigation systems.

“This is critical,” said Scarbor, who farms about 350 acres in southern Georgia. “We’re going to suffer severe damages, lose maybe half, two-thirds of the crops.”

The ripe cantaloupes at Scarbor’s farm are about half the size they should be.

Tommy Irvin, the state’s farming chief, estimated losses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars for state farmers, growers and cattlemen.

“We can’t get plows in the ground because it’s so dry,” Scarbor said.

Agriculture is a $50 billion industry in Georgia and losing large parts of the crops could cripple the economy in farm communities.

On Monday, state climatologist David Stooksbury classified 95 of the state’s 159 counties as being in “extreme” drought, a condition that weather experts expect to see only once every 50 years. The other counties are in severe to mild drought. Water restrictions for noncommercial use are in effect across the state.

Tropical weather brought some relief to parts of Georgia on June 2 – up to five inches in some areas – and could help reduce the massive shortfall of hay, Stooksbury said.

The rainfall is also giving a last-gasp chance to get peanuts planted. Little more than 50 percent of the crop was planted by May 27, said Nathan Smith, a University of Georgia Extension peanut economist.

“It’s a $100 million rain,” Smith said, meaning that’s the amount the storm could contribute to the crops.

But several thousand acres will not be planted, which could drive up prices, he said. The storm also missed many crop-producing western counties, where the rain deficits are still more than 10 inches.

The overall losses for peach growers in the state are around $30 million to $40 million, Lane said.

In central Georgia, growers lost as much as 80 percent of their peach crop to the Easter weekend frost. Now, they are straining to irrigate plants and pecan trees, said Duke Lane Jr., president of Lane Packing Co. of Fort Valley, one of the state’s major producers.

The company, which has 2,300 acres of peach trees, expects less than a fourth of its normal crop this year.

“We’re struggling along,” he said.

University of Georgia drought site:

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