Originally created 09/01/98

Climatologist: Georgia unprepared for drought

VALDOSTA, Ga. -- If Georgia farmers thought the three-month drought that cost them at least $500 million was bad, wait until they see what's coming.

This summer's drought was a pipsqueak in comparison to the Saharan conditions of a far-more devastating one that will parch the state sometime in the next 32 years, according to a long-term weather expert.

Henri Grissino-Mayer, a climatologist at Valdosta State University, says the state is unprepared for extended droughts, and Georgia agriculture officials agree with him.

"We are better prepared for hurricanes than we are a six-to-nine month drought, yet that drought will be much more destructive than a hurricane," Grissino-Mayer said. "It has more impact, not only to farmers, but to the general public. A drought raises food prices and makes certain food scarce."

Grissino-Mayer said agricultural officials need to prepare for droughts and other farm disasters just as emergency officials prepare for hurricanes. But instead of evacuation and shelters, farm officials need to consider emergency livestock feed and workable disaster programs.

The latest drought has caused serious problems for farmers and Georgia's rural economy. Farm equipment sales are down, and lenders worry that farmers may not be able to repay some of the $5 billion they owe.

Yet, when seen from a long-range perspective, the arid spell hardly even qualified as a drought, Grissino-Mayer said. Georgia has had at least 25 droughts over the past 103 years that were worse.

The mother of all recent droughts lasted about 32 months from January 1954 until October 1956. It was so dry, the Okefenokee Swamp caught fire, sending a smoky haze over much of southeastern Georgia. Irrigation systems were almost unheard of in Georgia at the time and crops withered in the fields.

Based on his study of climatic records, Grissino-Mayer said a 1954-style drought occurs every 80 years. He expects another around 2030.

"If you think the farmers are bad off now, just wait," he said.

Georgia farm leaders agree that emergency farm programs are needed.

Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin said the current crop insurance program is unrealistic because it doesn't cover all crops grown in the state. Coverage is based on a farmer's past production, rather than the investment a farmer has to make to produce the crop.

Irvin said it's unrealistic to base it on production because Georgia farmers have had three back-to-back disasters -- a summer drought and an overly wet fall last year, followed by this year's drought. All three cut their production.

"If we don't continue to invest in research and modern technology, we could see ourselves faced with a problem down the road of not having enough to feed ourselves," he said.

Wayne Dollar, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, agreed that an overhaul of the crop insurance program is needed. He said Congress also needs to restore an emergency feed program that provided grazing land and feed money.

"The 1998 drought will probably be the most expensive drought we've had to date because of the expense of trying to produce a crop," Dollar said. "We need a safety net for agriculture. It's an investment in our future. It's a program ... not for the 2 percent who farm, but for the 98 percent who enjoy the fruits of their labors."


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