ALBANY, Ga. -- Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said Georgia farmers could face more than $1 billion in losses -- their worst crop disaster in 21 years -- if there's no relief from the drought.
So far, the drought has destroyed much of the corn crop and is beginning to take a toll on major cash crops such as cotton, peanuts and tobacco.
The three-month drought has also caused many ponds to run dry, leaving some farmers without a source of irrigation water. Pastures have withered away, forcing livestock producers to sell cattle early and feed hay they had stored up for winter.
While President Clinton was in Atlanta on Thursday to kick off an anti-drug program, Mr. Irvin handed him a letter appealing for help. The commissioner has asked Gov. Zell Miller to request federal disaster assistance.
"The survival of thousands of farmers in Georgia and across the South from the Carolinas to Texas depends on your help and the help of Congress," Mr. Irvin told the president in the letter. "Drought and record-high temperatures have devastated our crops. ... We need your leadership to assure that farmers get the help they must have in order to survive."
Mr. Irvin said the president told him he appreciated him bringing that to his attention.
"He said he would look into it and give it all the attention he could," Mr. Irvin said. "My interpretation was very favorable feedback from the president."
Mr. Irvin said damages so far are estimated at about $300 million and mounting. A 1977 drought cost Georgia farmers more than $1 billion and if there's no substantial rainfall soon, farmers could face a similar loss or more this year, he said.
"It's affecting every segment of agriculture," Mr. Irvin said. "If we don't get rain by the end of the month, you can just about write it off. We're going to have some farmers who won't be back if they don't get help."
Nonirrigated corn was the first crop to wither away after weeks of near 100-degree temperatures and now the drought is beginning to take a toll on cotton, tobacco and peanuts, which are considered more drought tolerant.
The Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service rates most of the state's crops, including peaches, pecans, and watermelons, as very poor to fair. Only apples grown in north Georgia, which has gotten more rain, are in mostly good condition.
J. Michael Moore, a tobacco specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service, said the struggle to save crops is taking a toll on farmers, who have to work through the night monitoring irrigation equipment and then work all day running their farms.
Mr. Moore said tobacco growers are "very concerned" about their crop, which could be reduced by 20 percent because of the drought. Tobacco is the most important cash crop in much of south Georgia.
"In the process of irrigating, growers are running out of water in ponds," Mr. Moore said. "You have growers who are mentally and physically fatigued."
Wayne Dollar, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, said crop insurance and disaster loans are inadequate for modern agriculture and need to be revised.
"If this crop situation continues we are going to be in worse shape than we were in 1977," said Mr. Dollar, who has a 1,000-acre farm in Ochlochnee, near Thomasville. He grows cotton, peanuts, pecans and wheat and has a cattle herd.
"We're in serious trouble," he said of his own farming operation. "The cotton is definitely going to be a loss. Peanuts, we just don't know right now, but a peanut crop cannot carry all the other crops."
Mr. Dollar said the Farm Bureau gets calls every day from frantic farmers.
"Everybody is saying, `Look, we need help,"' he said. "A family farm can get wiped out -- a lifetime's savings -- in one crop year. We have got to develop a safety net for agriculture."
A glance at crop conditions in Georgia:
Corn: 41 percent very poor, 20 percent poor, 19 percent fair, 18 percent good and 2 percent excellent
Cotton: 20 percent very poor, 27 percent poor, 28 percent fair, 22 percent good and 3 percent excellent
Hay: 19 percent very poor, 31 poor, 31 percent fair, 17 percent good and 1 percent excellent
Pasture: 25 percent very poor, 37 percent poor, 25 percent fair, 12 percent good and 1 percent excellent
Peanuts: 13 percent very poor, 21 percent poor, 37 percent fair, 26 percent good and 3 percent excellent
Tobacco: 10 percent very poor, 20 percent poor, 43 percent fair, and 27 percent good
Pecans: 11 percent very poor, 29 percent poor, 46 percent fair and 14 percent good
Source: Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service