A two-day drive reveals drought's gritty reality

The startlingly anomaly of consecutive days without rain was amazing three weeks ago. As the streak rolls on, the arid days pile into a giant dry heap stretching over the Deep South.

On Nov. 14, I started a two-day trip. I drove up through west Georgia and then crossed the Chattahoochee River toward Roanoke in east Alabama. I eventually looped down through east Alabama to Abbeville, where I crossed back over the river into south Georgia near Blakely. You could see and smell the drought on both sides of the river.

Tree leaves along the backroads weren’t vibrant green, nor should they be expected to be; it is fall. But the leaves barely contrasted with the surrounding flora. Rustic, powdery brown is the backdrop to the country, but it isn’t due to a recent seasonal browning. The hue appears aged with the jaundiced tinge only an extended and exceptional weather event leaves behind.

I spoke to one Stewart County, Ga., farmer Nov. 14 as I started my trip. He figured the last time it rained on his farm was the first week of September. His peanut diggers have been parked since mid-September, hoping to get enough moisture to dig one more field. As of now, about 90 percent of his dryland peanut crop he did harvest graded Seg. 3. He has had to file production insurance on all of his dryland acreage.

His estimate on days without rain is correct. According to the University of Georgia Weather Network station in Georgetown in southwest Georgia on the Alabama line and near his farm, the last rain worth measuring, a rain with drops that didn’t evaporate upon soil contact, was 1.75 inches Sept. 11; before then it rained .32 inch Aug. 23. Other recorded rain days at the station between those dates and until Nov. 16 measure in the 100ths of an inch. Those recorded minuscule rain events might be attributed to the highly sensitive instruments used to measure precipitation at these weather stations and the well-timed flights of ‘full’ birds over the Georgetown station.

About 100 miles north of Georgetown at Callaway Gardens near Pine Mountain, it rained 3.8 inches between Aug. 1 and Nov. 16. Between the same dates last year, it rained 20 inches. During the drought of 2013, it rained close to 7 inches between Aug. 1 and Nov. 15.

In Walker County on the Georgia-Tennessee Line, the UGA weather station recorded only 16 days of rain in the 110 days between Aug. 1 and Nov. 17, for total rainfall during that time of 6.6 inches. The station recorded for the same dates last year 16 inches of rain. Even the drought of 2013 saw 10 inches of rain for those dates at that station.

The damage to crops is done now. But ironically, and not to anyone’s bursting pleasure, the dry conditions proved to be excellent harvest weather for many. The cotton crop, proving its dogged perseverance once again, is going to come through better than expected in places.

But cattlemen in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee have been feeding hay to sustain herds since early summer when pastures began to fail due to the drought. And as fall passes to winter, hay feeding will continue because annual winter grazing isn’t being planted or will not germinate due to the continued exceptional drought.

What hits you now in the region is the pungent smell of wildfires on both sides of the river. According to the Alabama Farmers Federation, wildfires have burned more than 40,000 acres this year, with half of those acres destroyed since Oct. 1. There is a no-burn order for the state now.

In north Georgia, wildfires have burned close 20,000 acres and burn now in areas near the Tennessee Line. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has upped the state’s drought level and issued a ban on fireworks.

We in the Southeast are very used to extreme weather, and extreme drought doesn’t cause panic in the streets or along fence rows on most days. We know it will rain again; rain always returns to relieve us and the land eventually. We just need to remember to be thankful when it does ... but dang, it needs to rain.

Take care, good luck and thanks for reading.

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