Gloomy skies of the past few weeks have been good for southeast Georgia and northeast Florida farmers, providing adequate rainfall for planting for the first time in three years.
Crop and fuel prices, however, are dashing hopes some have of making a profit off this year's crop.
James Clark, the Appling County Agriculture Extension Service agent in Baxley, said some farmers are now going around wet places in their fields.
"I think it's a bad sign when you can go through all the wet places," he said. The boggy low areas are a sign of overall good soil moisture, and Appling County has had enough water so far this year, he said.
And so have its neighbors in southeast Georgia.
Automated reporting stations in Alma, Valdosta, Tifton and Brunswick all have recorded more than 5 inches of rainfall since March 12.
As rain has fallen, however, so have commodity prices.
The price of cotton, one of the few moneymakers, has dropped so much that many farmers are discouraged going into the growing season, Mr. Clark said.
Cotton was at 52 cents a pound recently, far below the $1-plus-per-pound prices of the mid-1990s that spurred a resurgence of the puffy fiber in Georgia fields. It is also far below the price that keeps farmers out of the red.
"Farmers get discouraged when it gets below 60 cents a pound," Mr. Clark said.
But as the price of cotton on world markets is halved, farm diesel fuel has jumped in just two years from 60 cents a gallon to more than $1. That has spurred farmers to try new techniques to reduce their time in the field, said Coffee County extension agent Rick Reed.
Many farmers who formerly did things the old-fashioned way - repeatedly plowing an entire field and then returning to plant - are trying some new techniques.
With no-till cultivation, a piece of equipment plows narrow lines into which seeds are dropped in a single pass. In strip tilling, the farmer plows a strip only wide enough for a row, Mr. Reed said.
Mr. Reed and Bacon County agent Danny Stanaland said it saves more than fuel.
"You disturb as little soil as possible to preserve the moisture," Mr. Stanaland said.
WAYNE LEE, WHO HAS been farming 40 years in southern Appling County, recently sold his plows and other equipment and bought a new no-till planter. Mr. Lee said he expects to save some money when he plants cotton in about a week.
Mr. Lee said he has typically made six or seven trips across a field - he harrowed one field five times last year - but with his new equipment, one trip will be enough.
"I think we're all going to have to go to it," he said of no-till cultivation.
Although he will save money in planting, Mr. Lee is leery of what he will get for his cotton.
"I didn't think it would ever get this low," he said.
Although Bacon County is in good shape for topsoil moisture, the subsoil past a foot deep is still relatively dry. Unless rains continue, soil condition could change rapidly with the hot, dry southwest winds that have blown recently, Mr. Stanaland said.
In fact, the state climatologist at the University of Georgia points out that the majority of the state is far behind normal rainfall levels for the year.
Although Florida rainfall remains below normal, rains in March and early April have made a difference, county Agriculture Extension Service agents said.
But farmers say unless additional rain falls in the coming weeks, crops could fail just as they have in the past three years. Forecasters say there is no way of predicting whether this summer will be wet, dry or normal, but there are indicators that it will be hotter than average, said Pam Knox, assistant state climatologist at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
The 7,000 to 8,000 acres of ferns and flowers that account for $9 million annually in Volusia County's economy have benefited greatly, said Dana Venrick, commercial horticulturist for the county agriculture extension service.
"It's certainly helped," Ms. Venrick said, "but it's going take a lot more rainfall."
The rain is especially helpful because flower and fern growers have been under water restrictions from the St. Johns River Water Management District that, although not excessively restrictive, have hampered production, he said.
Under the rules, greenhouses can use water from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and outside watering is restricted from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. From noon to 5 p.m., when the weather is hottest, growers formerly ran their sprinklers constantly to reduce damaging heat stress, but now can water only 60 minutes at a time, he said.
Because it is soft water and can dissolve more nutrients, nothing works like rain, and it has helped increase the quality of the flowers, Ms. Venrick said.
BECAUSE FARMERS ARE just now digging this year's crop, it is too early to estimate the yield, Mr. Tilton said.
In the Lake City area of Florida, pastures and produce crops have benefited from recent rains that should also help peanut and tobacco farmers, who are just now planting, said Bill Thomas, Columbia County (Fla.) Agriculture Extension agent.
The eight to 10 inches of rain since early March came just when ranchers needed it most, he said.
"The cool season forages are about completely run out," and the rain has helped the summer grasses turn green, he said.
It was so dry last year that some farmers turned their irrigation systems onto pastures, something that is extremely rare, Mr. Thomas said.
"I'm not making that up. Forage for livestock got absolutely critical," he said.
"The cool season forages are about completely run out."- Bill Thomas, Columbia County (Fla.) Agriculture Extension agent,on farmers need for more water
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