Alabama growers voice drought concerns

About a week after all 67 Alabama counties were declared a disaster area by USDA, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System held a statewide video conference to discuss the drought that continues to plague the state's farmers.

Bob Goodman, Extension agronomist, moderated the video conference from Auburn University as it switched to several viewing sites around the state to give farmers a chance to talk about the drought and how it is affecting their crops this season.

Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks, attended the video conference as well as staffers with U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions' office.

The worst area in the state is in north Alabama, which was declared a D4 area by the U.S. Drought Monitor, indicating exceptional drought conditions — or conditions that occur about once every 50 to 100 years.

“These are very trying times for our men in agriculture,” Sparks says. “But we want to do what we can to help them out.”

According to Thomas Kirkland, a farmer in the Wiregrass region in southeast Alabama, he had a good rain on April 14, but his next good rain wasn't until June 19. “I went two and a half months with no rainfall,” says Kirkland, who grows cotton and peanuts. “We are going to lose money any way you look at it.”

The main concern for Kirk Parker, a cattle farmer in the Wiregrass, is the lack of hay. “We have cut absolutely no hay this season,” Parker says. “I've had pastures that haven't had a cow in them since the first of April. There is no hay in southeast Alabama and this is as bad as it has ever been in this area for cows.”

Farmers in Elmore County in central Alabama have seen the same problems as in the Wiregrass region — a lot of damaged pastures and grasslands as well as damaged row crops.

Thomas Dozier, a farmer in the southern part of Elmore County, says complete recovery is impossible.

“The thing that makes this especially damaging at this time, coupled with the drought we had last year, is that our margins have been so narrow and completely non-existent for the last couple of years that we have nothing to fall back on,” says Dozier.

“Farming is a risky business, and it's absolutely necessary to have substantial reserves to fall back on at a time like this.”

Dozier says corn is a disaster on his farm, but cotton is in better shape. “On our irrigated crops, we've already put 700 hours on them this year, and that equates to a lot of expense. Conditions are very bad,” he says.

Richard Edgar, another Elmore County farmer, echoed Dozier's concerns. According to Edgar, the cotton he planted at the first of May came up about June 18 and it stands at about 17 to 20 inches. It is also blooming. The rest of the cotton, however, is about 4 or 5 inches tall with only two or three leaves on it.

“The crop insurance is my concern,” says Edgar. “We have to put the money into this crop, even though we know it won't have the opportunity to make a full yield.”

Edgar says his corn yields have been severely cut to at least 50 percent of what could have been expected. For cotton to make this year, Edgar says he'll need rain from August through September and a late freeze around November.

“The other side of this is that the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has chosen a bad time in our cycle to cut back on our monies as far as advances on our direct payments,” he says. “We only received 22 percent advance this year as opposed to the past year at 50 percent, and that would have gone a long way to help us over the hump of last year.”

Edgar adds the FSA is still dragging its feet on the disaster relief. “For the past three years, we don't have anything out here, we don't have anything available yet to help out,” he says. “Maybe our congressional aides could find a way to light a fire under the FSA and get them moving towards this relief that's been approved, and moving money that has been allotted on into the channel so that we can pay our bills.”

In central Alabama's Autauga County, Bill Lipscomb has received about 2 inches of rain since the beginning of July, and that has helped to improve his pasture situation.

“One thing that's going to hurt us is that this drought has caused cattle producers to either early wean or early sell,” he says. “People are selling their replacement cattle; they are not keeping any of them.”

According to Lipscomb, if people keep selling their replacement cattle, there will be a depletion in herd size or people are going to sell out their entire herds. “The big hurdle is how we are going to carry our cows through the winter. Protein sources are going to be real tight because we usually use a lot of cottonseed to feed our cattle.”

Stanley Walker, a Black Belt region farmer, says no one is going to escape the devastation of this drought. “Alabama agriculture is in extreme jeopardy. This is a 100-year drought, and much of the corn here has been destroyed.”

The main concern in west Alabama's Greene County came from cattle producers.

According to Richard Harville, who has about 3,000 acres, his grass was so dry that he worried the roots would die and it wouldn't grow back. “I have a 500-head herd, and I have had to liquidate 60 percent of our cattle, so now I have about a 200-head herd. I have spread the cattle throughout the whole place, running about 10 acres to the cow just so I have enough to feed and they don't really have enough to eat in there,” he says.

Harville says the hay situation is the worst part of the drought. “We normally have 1,000 rolls of hay, and right now we only have 200 rolls,” he says. “We've already fed half of that to the cows.”

Whalen Blair, another cattle producer in Greene County, says his main problem is hay as well. “I started feeding in October of 2006 and I fed through July of 2007. On May 16 and May 17, I rolled 89 rolls of ryegrass and it was not real good because it was short. I have already fed part of that. If we have good luck and good rain, I may be able to get 50 percent of what I need. We just need some help. I tried to save my herd and it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to put together a good cow herd.”

Robert Miller, a farmer in east Alabama's Lee County, says he didn't want to sell his cattle, so he purchased hay. Miller also farms cotton, peanuts and corn.

“The cotton is sitting at a fair stand, but I am looking to lose money on it because about a fourth of my crop came up 10 to 15 days ago,” he said in mid-July. “The time factor is going to lay into it.”

Miller adds that he didn't even plant peanuts this year. “My field was so dry and powdery, I opted not to plant peanuts this year. I waited until June 19, and the date had already passed on insurance for planting the peanuts so I didn't plant them.”

He says his corn was a disaster and that overall, there is no way for him to show a profit this year.

Farmer David Wilson of Talladega County has yet to cut a bale of hay. “Our pastures look like deserts. We haven't put out any fertilizer because it wouldn't do anything. Our row crops consisted of corn and we have 600 acres we never planted.”

Lance Whitehead, who farms in Fayette and Pickens counties, says he has 800 acres of cotton and 575 of that has an adequate stand.

He has replanted 210 acres.

“The overall operating cost has substantially increased. We need financial funding fast, especially for young farmers like me. With little equity backing, we will be forced out of farming,” he says.

In north Alabama's Sand Mountain region, farmers stressed the need for long-term solutions to the problem. According to Jimmy Miller of Blount County, crop insurance should provide some sort of coverage. We need some kind of coverage or a reasonable premium to cover what we're putting out there,” he says.

Bryan Glenn of north Alabama's Lawrence County has lost all three of his crops because of the drought. “This is the first time in my life that I've lost all three crops — wheat, soybeans and corn. I've had to replant 50 to 75 percent of my corn.”

According to John Pirtle with the Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC), the timber industry in Alabama is also suffering from the drought. “Alabama is 71 percent forest land. In north Alabama, our forests were hit very hard by the Easter freeze, coupled with the fact they are bearing the brunt of the worst part of this drought. This is resulting in a significant loss of growth,” he says.

Last year, the AFC planted more than 200,000 acres of seedlings. Pirtle says they just completed a statewide survey, and it doesn't look good for the survival of the trees.

“Only the southeast part of the state is having average survival numbers,” he says. “Most of the state is well below 50 percent, with some part of north Alabama with 100-percent mortality. Unless we get some significant continual rainfall for the rest of the year, which is not predicted to happen, this is going to approach $30 million in direct costs to Alabama forest owners to replant these acres.”

Ronnie Davis with the FSA says there is a disaster program in place. “The problem with the program is they threw in a lot of things that changed the way we would deliver this program, which meant software had to be redeveloped. This delayed some of the timing of getting this program implemented and getting it into the county offices where farmers can sign up.”

Davis says as of now, there is no set time when farmers can sign up, but he anticipates the sign-up date to be at least early October. “By the time the software is developed and we have our office staff trained throughout the state to deliver the program, it's going to be late September or early October,” he says.

According to Davis, quality losses will be addressed in the program, and if a farmer has a production loss, they will have an opportunity to regain a market loss on some of those crops.

“We can go ahead and take applications on production losses and go ahead and run that software and maybe get some money out into the fields as soon as possible,” he says. “Then we will go back and address the quality issues later on in the program.”

According to Sen. Sessions' ag staffer, his office requested that the Feb. 28 planting deadline for disaster aid be moved to April. “We are trying our best up here in Washington, D.C., to get some help down there. We need to get you guys some cash flow,” he says.

Commissioner Sparks says he wants farmers to understand that everyone in Montgomery is aware of what is going on throughout Alabama. “Most of these farmers are in the worst situation they've been in for a long time, and we're trying to get some relief out there as quick as we can,” he says.

Sparks says one of the biggest problems is with the “disconnect” with agriculture in Washington. “Sometimes we really don't understand how difficult it is in Washington with our legislative delegation. They've had to deal with folks all across this country and not everybody across this country cares about agriculture, and they certainly don't care about Alabama.”

Sparks says he has met with the state insurance commissioner to try and cut through the red tape to get more adjusters into the state to start helping farmers more quickly.

“Gov. Bob Riley and I have asked the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for money from Section 32 to aid farmers.” Section 32 money comes from the Commodity Credit Corporation, and the Secretary has discretion in extraordinary situations on the use of those funds.

“I believe that a D4 over Alabama is an extraordinary situation,” he says. “We've tried to do this, and we are trying to put things in priority. We realize there has got to be a disaster package put together because of the February plant date in the last disaster package. We're going to have to come back and go for a new disaster package because there are not many people in Alabama who would fall in that Feb. 28 planting date.”

Sparks has asked Gov. Riley for $10 million from Section 32 to pay for moving hay from surrounding regions so that farmers would not have to incur the cost of transportation. “I thought if we could get some kind of alternative food source to start saving some of this herd, that could possibly get us through 30 to 45 days to where we could start figuring out what the rest of this year is going to bring us,” he says.

Sparks adds that he has no doubt something needs to be done about crop insurance. “There's no doubt in my mind that crop insurance needs to be fixed, and I can assure you that every time I sit down with my colleagues from across the county, crop insurance is laying on the table. There's a lot of work that has got to be done quickly.”

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