ALBANY, Ga. -- After a summer of drought, disease and some of the lowest commodity prices in years, weary Georgia farmers are harvesting their peanut crop.
Worth about $450 million to growers last year, peanuts are a top cash crop in Georgia, the nation's leading peanut producer. Most of the state's peanuts are used to make peanut butter.
"It's not an exceptional crop," said Mitchell County grower James Lee Adams, who began digging his crop last week. "Tomato virus has devastated some of these fields."
The Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service predicts a crop of 1.4 billion pounds, 7 percent smaller than last year's crop. Yields are expected to average 2,600 pounds per acre, 215 fewer pounds per acre than in 1998.
John Beasley, a peanut specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service, said three-fourths of this year's crop could be harvested in the next three weeks. In past years, the harvest has run from late August to November.
The reason for this year's short harvest is because farmers, following guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of tomato spotted wilt virus, planted 71 percent of the crop between May 2 and May 23.
Despite the precautions, growers faced a higher incidence of the virus, an incurable disease that attacks several hundred plant varieties. The virus is spread by tiny, wind-borne insects known as thrips.
"The crop is looking so-so," Mr. Beasley said. "We've seen some tremendous-looking fields and some that were sorry. They're not going to produce much of a crop. They got hit by spotted wilt, drought or other factors."
Because of the drought and high temperatures, growers had to rely heavily on irrigation. That makes the crop more expensive to produce.
Mr. Adams said many farmers have lost hope because of the variability of the weather and the "extraordinarily" low prices.
"We're seeing some of the lowest prices in 40 or 50 years, versus what it costs to grow our crops," Mr. Adams said.
Peanut prices have been driven down by the 1996 farm bill, which cut the government price support for peanuts grown for domestic use by 10 percent.
To harvest peanuts, growers dig them up and let them dry in the field for a few days. After a machine plucks the peanuts from the vines, they are hauled in wagons to a buying point, where they are weighed and graded.