NO RAIN, NO GAIN: Dreams Turn To Dust Amid 2007 Drought
By Darryal Ray
It was supposed to be the dream season for row crop farmers, one overflowing with promises of fertile fields of golden corn towering high and yielding bushels upon bushels that would fetch record prices.
|Winford Parmer has been feeding his cattle rye grass hay since mid-May, but wonders what will happen when winter comes.|
But no sooner did the Easter weekend freeze pass than ... well, nothing. No heat, no cold, no rain. No nothing.
And with no rain, there's no gain.
In fact, Alabama's 43,500 farms could suffer their greatest losses in decades as the state has been left high and dry by a drought that some say is the worst in 50 years, a drought that has turned cropland into oversized sand boxes.
State officials says nearly two-thirds of those corn crops and more than half of the state's wheat crops are considered in poor to very poor condition. Cotton and soybean crops are beginning to die, and peanut seeds are sitting idle in the fields, waiting for the rain that hasn't come.
"I've got 1,200 acres of corn planted and some of it hasn't had a drop of rain in a month," said Lance Whitehead of Fayette County in late May. "The potential yield is going to be 20 to 30 bushels (per acre) at best. Out of 800 acres of cotton, I've got about 250 acres that I have a stand on. I was going to plant about 400 acres of peanuts, but I stopped at 275 because I couldn't get a stand on the last 125 acres. It's bone dry. We were planting those peanuts as deep as we could but there's not enough moisture in the ground. We've just been planting in powder."
The state's cattle ranchers are feeling the pain, too, as almost a third of the state's cattle are endangered either by lack of hay or water -- or both. Farm ponds, creeks and streams have vanished almost overnight, leaving only deep gouges and cracks where cool water once flowed.
Smoke from wildfires in Georgia and Florida hung heavy in the morning air for almost a week in late May, reminding Alabamians that it wouldn't take much for their own land to go up in smoke. Bigger cities began implementing restrictions on water usage as utilities like Alabama Power Company saw reservoir levels drop to record lows. Even pest control companies reported an increase in business as critters seeking water began moving into homes.
As bad as it sounds, Dr. John Christy, the state climatologist, says it's actually worse than many think. He points to the driest March-April-May spring since the 1890s. "This is roughly a once-in-a-100-year event," he said. "It's the driest we've ever seen."
The statistics in this so-called dream season are horrifying: the state's rainfall deficit is 47 inches since January 2005 -- for a state that normally receives 53.6 inches of rainfall a year, that's almost a year without rain.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the entire state under a drought -- with 21.9 percent of it designated as "exceptional."
State Forester Linda Casey put all 67 counties under a fire alert. Gov. Bob Riley has put 55 counties under a drought alert, making farmers in those areas eligible for low-cost loans. With each passing day without rainfall, more will likely become eligible.
Christy, for one, says the amount of rain needed isn't likely to come. "Summertime in Alabama generally does not have rain that falls with a frequency of one inch per week everywhere, and that is pretty much what is needed to make crops at this point," he said.
Perry Mobley, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's Beef, Dairy and Hay & Forage Divisions, says this could be the year that puts many farmers out of business. "I was talking with a lender recently and he said he will lose several good farmers this year if we have another year like last year," he said.
Mobley said that the state's cattle farmers started the year with little or no hay reserves because of last year's drought, and the lack of rain has cut into hay production this year. And with less grass in the pastures, farmers were reaching into their winter hay reserves as early as May.
"If they do have hay, they'll have to feed it now if they are going to retain those cows," said Mobley. "Otherwise, they'll have to sell cows or sell calves early to get them off of that pasture. So, we're going to see a lot of herds reduced, cows going to livestock markets, and we're going to see probably another reduced amount of hay going into the winter feeding months."
Mobley's expectations were borne out in the state Department of Agriculture's Weekly Livestock Summary: 296,200 head of cattle were sold at auction on the week ending June 2 -- 37,900 more than the same period last year.
Don Green, who runs the livestock barn in Roanoke, part of the state's hardest hit area, said those figures were reflected at his sale barn where one recent sale in late May saw 1,500 head pass through -- more than double the amount of cattle sold during the same period last year. And a good portion of those were 250- to 300-pound calves.
"The sad part is even if it rains now, it's not going to be a lot of help," he said. "When our people sell out up here, they hardly ever go back into the business, and that's a bad omen for us. If it doesn't rain, we're going to have a lot of them go out."
In Autauga County, Winford Parmer says he baled about 300 acres of ryegrass, but he began feeding it to his cow-calf operation in mid-May after an underground spring that normally covers 15 acres dwindled to a trickle. As of June 4, Parmer said he had gone 51 days without rain.
"I had some flowing wells down here in the bottom where the water generally runs about a mile to a mile and a half through the pasture, but it's not running but a quarter-mile now," Parmer said. "It's just evaporating away."
Fortunately for Parmer, he rents another 1,000 acres five miles away which has a bit more water on it. So, when he has to, he's loaded his herd up on a big livestock hauler and moved them to that pasture.
Meanwhile, Christy reiterated his belief that the time for agricultural irrigation in Alabama is long past due.
"You can't find any better evidence for the need of irrigation than to look at 2006 and 2007," he said. "If you look at the long term, you see ups and downs, but if I could say anything to our legislators in the state house and in the Congress, it would be that we need to stamp out gambling in Alabama because when a farmer puts that seed in the ground, that's all he's doing. He's just gambling that we'll get the rain we need to grow a crop."
Whitehead in Fayette would agree with that.
"I'm living my childhood dream right now as a row crop farmer. That's all I ever wanted to do," he said. "But this is Russian roulette with a double barrel, and you can't survive two years in a row with a drought of this magnitude. Or at least I can't -- I can't."