Southeast farmers face bumpy start to 2007 growing season

It has been an inauspicious start in the lower Southeast to a growing season that began with more promise than any in recent history. The promise, of course, the result of skyrocketing prices in the grain and soybean markets.

But the potential for making a profit this year — with corn or anything else for that matter — has been significantly damaged by a series of early season weather calamities. Problems caused by a lingering drought were compounded by sub-freezing temperatures during Easter weekend that severely damaged much of the region's wheat crop and set back the later-planted corn. Some old-timers are calling this the worst start to a season they've ever seen, and the evidence bears this out.

Large portions of Alabama, Georgia and Florida are currently categorized as being in “extreme” or “severe” drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Drought generally is defined as a moisture deficit bad enough to have social, environmental or economic effects. Extreme drought conditions are those that are expected once in 50 years, causing major crop and pasture losses and possible widespread water shortages or restrictions.

Severe drought conditions, on the other hand, are those we can expect once every 20 years. And while droughts have appeared to be occurring with greater frequency in recent years, the current one could end up being in a class all it's own.

To anyone who has been paying attention to rainfall amounts, this drought doesn't come as a complete surprise. According to John Christy, state climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the current drought actually began in January of 2005, and every season since has been below average for rainfall.

In Georgia, several counties are reporting some of the driest first four months of the year in many decades of record-keeping. For example, Rome, Ga., had only 8.40 inches of rain from January through April of this year, the driest four months in 109 years of reporting. Other areas of the state are reporting similar rainfall deficits.

River and stream flows also help to put droughts in historical perspective, says David Stooksbury, University of Georgia state climatologist. The U.S. Geological Survey reports daily record to near-record low stream flows for the first part of May across all of Georgia except the extreme northeast. And even in the northeast, stream flows were extremely low for early May and falling.

In the Coosawattee and Oostanaula basins of northwest Georgia and the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Altamaha basins of east Georgia stream flows, were near or breaking low-flow records set on May 3 in 1986, said Stooksbury in mid-May.

In the northern and middle Flint River basin, the current flows were breaking records set in 2000, and the May 3 flow on the Flint at Newton, Ga., broke the record low for that day, set in 1981.

Meanwhile, rivers draining the Okefenokee Swamp are near or at record low flows set in the early 1930s and middle 1950s. And in extreme southwest Georgia, stream flows in the smaller basins are breaking records that were set last year.

Stooksbury says little if any widespread, sustained relief from the drought is anticipated, and that his long-term outlook is for the drought to continue to intensify.

In southeast Alabama, some cotton producers were dusting in seed in mid-May, while others were halting planting altogether. William Birdsong, an Extension specialist in the area, says he has never seen two extensive droughts back to back, and he remains hopeful that this year won't be his first such experience.

It's difficult to remain optimistic considering the dismal start to 2007, but it brings to mind last year's cotton crop in Georgia, the one Extension cotton specialist Steve Brown so aptly named “the comeback crop.” Dry weather and high temperatures hung over the crop for much of the 2006 growing season. And as late as this past September, average yields were being forecast in the 200-pound per-acre range. But aided by a few late-season showers and ideal harvest conditions, Georgia's cotton made a final surge and finished at more than 820 pounds per acre, the third highest yield on record.

The lesson being, it ain't over ‘til it's over.

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