Drought hits central Alabama hard

The Southeastern states have been hit hard by an unforgiving drought in 2006. While farmers throughout the region are struggling just to stay in business, almost no area has been hit harder than central Alabama.

Bob Luker, like a lot of growers, has been farming his whole life. He owns property in the Talladega area, and he has faced several bad years due to drought and insects. He remembered 1995 as a particularly bad year. But, so far, 2006 does not look much better.

Luker has corn and cotton this year, with some of the corn crop being irrigated. The irrigated corn, Luker says, could be better with more rain. But the fields without irrigation appear to be almost a total loss at this point.

According to Luker's records, his fields have received as little as one quarter to one half inch of rain. As Luker checked the corn that was getting almost no rain, he pointed out stalks with almost no yield.

“What we've got in this field is salad corn,” Luker says. “Maybe we can go into that business.”

He recalled his father talking about hot, dry years back when he was farming the same land without an irrigation system. He says a year like this one was not all that rare back then, but his father didn't have as much acreage to risk in a dry year. Luker farms about 1,850 acres, 250 of which are irrigated.

“In a dry year, that helps,” Luker says. “But 15 percent won't pay the bills.”

Joseph “Dickey” Segrest owns about 1,800 acres in the Tallassee area. He has approximately 1,650 acres of cotton, much of which is not irrigated. Segrest says about half of his acreage is irrigated, and the crops on that land are “staying alive.”

“The irrigated peanuts look good, but the other ones aren't doing anything,” Segrest says. “It's the same with the cotton.”

Segrest says hoping for rain is really the only option he has, as he has irrigated almost all the land he can irrigate. Not only is the cost of irrigation an obvious setback for farmers in central Alabama, but the availability of aquifers also is an obstacle.

As if the drought situation wasn't bad enough, farmers across the Southeast are dealing with higher input costs. Fuel prices have been climbing steadily and fertilizer prices have also taken a turn in the wrong direction.

Both Segrest and Luker complain that diesel prices have skyrocketed over the past couple of years. Some of Luker's irrigation systems are run on electricity, which also is costing him more and more.

“Electricity has gone way up,” Luker says. “But the diesel is really killing us.”

Dale Monks, an Extension cotton agronomist at Auburn University, says across Alabama and even in Georgia, cotton is far behind where it should be in terms of height at this point of the growing season.

“One thing I think we're seeing now is a lot of cotton has already bloomed out the top,” Monks says. “That cotton's yield potential is probably gone.”

It would take a major change in the weather pattern, Monks says, to affect the cotton crop in Alabama at this point.

Segrest agrees that if his cotton does not receive a lot of rain towards the end of July and early part of August, his yields will drop significantly.

It probably would take a tropical storm spread out over a few days to first wet the ground and keep it wet to turn the cotton crop around. And right now, that does not seem likely.

“The cotton crop is dismal — I've heard that word used a lot — and I think it's pretty accurate,” Monks says. “Even in fields that are heavily irrigated, it's still not as robust as usual.”

John Beasley, Extension peanut agronomist for the University of Georgia, says the drought is hitting the peanut crop in Georgia hard this year. While he thinks there is still hope for a decent yield in 2006, he, like Monks, says a change in the weather pattern must arrive soon.

“The drought is a huge concern — there's just no doubt,” Beasley says. “But there's still time for this thing to turn around if we can get some rain here in the next couple of weeks. Yield potential does not look good, but there's still time for a change.”

After three strong years, this year will leave farmers with little hope for the profit margins they are accustomed to. While Monks thinks the overall market impact of the drought in the Southeast will not affect the price of cotton much, he emphasizes that most of the impact will be on the farmer.

As costs continue to rise, years like this one will need to be few and far between for the mid-size farmer to keep up, or something else will have to change. For Segrest, he says he may consider selling some of his land if his returns do not cover enough of his input costs this year. Luker said he hopes he will not have to change much, but he is somewhat open to the possibility.

“I wouldn't be surprised if we do have to change some things,” Luker says. “Any time you're involved in something that's changing and progressing you have to change with the times. We'll evaluate at the end of the year where we are and where we need to be. That's how we make our decisions.”

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