JESUP, Ga. - In spite of a five-year drought, Billy Burch had a good cotton crop. Then heavy rains began in the late summer, and his crop is now ruining in his fields in western Wayne County.
"When the cotton started opening, it started raining. The cotton started falling off in the field," Mr. Burch said.
Now Mr. Burch and other south Georgia farmers have problems getting the heavy mechanical pickers into the field because the muddy ground won't handle their weight.
Randy Franks, a University of Georgia Agricultural Extension Service county agent, visited Mr. Burch's fields earlier this week after the heavy weekend rains. He saw another blow to what had been an excellent crop.
"We had made a good crop, and we can't get it picked," Mr. Burch said.
Past rains have hurt the color and quality of the lint, dropping already-low prices an additional 9 to 11 cents a pound, he said.
Farmers need about 60 cents a pound to break even, but Monday's price on December cotton, traditionally a heavy trading month, was only 49 cents a pound, Mr. Franks said.
"And that's up some from last week," he said.
WAYNE COUNTY IS FAR from unique. Other cotton farmers in south Georgia are struggling.
"We've gone from one extreme to the other, and neither has been good," said Coffee County Agent Rick Reed.
In the past 12 days, Coffee County's 40,000 acres of cotton has been hit with high winds and seven to 12 inches of rain, depending on the location, Mr. Reed said. Last week's tornado damaged much of the unpicked cotton, he said.
Although wind can be a problem when it knocks unpicked cotton from the burrs, the rain is worse, Mr. Reed said.
"Cotton has to be dry to pick. If it's wet, it binds up the equipment," he said. "If you do manage to pick some that's wet, you've got to get it to the gin within 12 hours or it rots."
Farmers need at least 24 hours of dry weather and a full day of sun to dry out the cotton, Mr. Reed said.
"I estimate that we've got 60 percent picked at most," he said.
Combined with extremely low prices, the weather might make this a historically bad year for cotton farmers, he said.
"There'll be 5 percent of the growers fortunate enough to break even. This is a year cotton farmers will look back on and remember," Mr. Reed said.
KENT FOUNTAIN, one of the owners of Southeastern Gin in eastern Appling County, said he's unlikely to forget it.
The gin normally turns out 20,000 500-pound bales of cotton each month, but it is ginning 12,000 to 14,000 bales each month this year, Mr. Fountain said.
One reason is that the cotton is arriving slowly. Another is that the cotton lint is wet and of such poor quality that he has to run his ginning equipment at about 65 percent of normal speed, Mr. Fountain said.
He said he will join the farmers in suffering through a bad year, the worst in his nine years in the business.
But there was some good news: Several days of dry weather are predicted. The same winds that knocked some cotton from the burrs Sunday also helped dry things out, and some farmers said they would try to resume picking.