Originally created 07/09/98

Farmers losing crops to Georgia droughts



ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia farmers are facing what could become the worst losses ever in the drought that has gripped the Southeast for two months, state Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said.

"Our crops are burning up. We're not yet at the point where I'd call it the worst year we've ever had, but we're getting close to it," Mr. Irvin said.

Georgia farmers' losses topped $1 billion after a 1977 drought. This year could match or exceed that, Mr. Irvin said.

Virtually all the state's corn crop is already a loss, and peanuts and cotton -- the state's major row crops -- could also have disastrous years, he said.

Mr. Irvin said he plans to "bring this to the attention of the president" when Bill Clinton visits the state today, he said.

A weather front that passed through Georgia Wednesday offered some drought relief, but what the state needs is two to three days of steady rain, Mr. Irvin said.

"If we don't get some rain by the end of the month, you can just about mark it up," he said.

The drought, which extends from the Carolinas to Texas, is worst in south Georgia, but northeast Georgia area is hard-hit also.

"We are to the point where pastures are starting to dry out, especially fescue," said Madison County Agent Carl Varnadoe. "We are starting to lose pastures."

The high temperatures have made matters worse, Mr. Varnadoe said.

"We can go without rain for quite a while. But with the oppressive heat, the moisture is just sucked right out of the plants," he said.

Mr. Varnadoe said he's received many calls from gardeners who can't understand why their plants are dying even with regular watering.

"The water evaporates faster than the plant can use it," he said.

According to Georgia Cooperative Extension Service statistics, the "water balance -- total rainfall, minus evaporation -- is minus 6.65 inches at the Watkinsville monitoring station since the first part of May. That's bad, but not as severe as the numbers at south Georgia monitoring stations. For the period between May 1 and Tuesday, the water balance figure was minus 11.55 in Attapulgus, minus 13.24 in Camilla, and minus 9.65 inches in Alma.

Some 5.05 inches of rain fell on Athens in May and June, according to the National Weather Service, but most of that fell in the early part of the month.

For those two months, rainfall is 3.25 inches below normal.

Dry areas

According to one measure of drought, Athens is among the state's driest areas.

The Georgia Forestry Commission's drought index, which is updated daily, is a measure of the relative dryness of plant material.

Dry areas include:

Athens: 651

Washington: 697

Waycross: 740

Newman: 569

Dallas: 551

Plains: 486