Rains cheer SE farmers, but deluge late for some

Published 11:46 pm Monday, September 1, 2008

Farmers in the drought-stricken Southeast halfheartedly celebrated downpours from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay last month, when several inches of rain took the edge off a potentially disastrous season.

Some crops like corn and soybeans that are planted early were already beyond help. But the rain did help crops planted later like tobacco, cotton, peanuts and hay, which are heading toward harvest, agriculture experts said.

“These rains have improved things to a mediocre year. Otherwise it was probably going to be a horrible year,” said South Carolina Agriculture Department marketing specialist Brad Boozer.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

People who monitor the serious drought gripping the Southeast are still trying to assess the exact benefit from several inches of rain that fell in northern Georgia, Alabama and the western Carolinas.

It was far too soon Monday to say what effect the downpours from Hurricane Gustav would have farther west in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas. The storm could bring more rain to recharge the moisture in the soil, but its high winds threatened peach orchards, said Perry Mobley, a commodities director for the Alabama Farmers Federation.

And the Atlantic coast might wind up with more rain than it needs later this week if Hurricane Hanna, which formed Monday off the Bahamas, works its way north as projected.

But after Fay, farms ponds refilled, lakes and rivers rose and the thirsty ground soaked up the downpour, the first time in at least two years that a decaying tropical storm has drenched the interior of the region.

On the U.S. Drought Monitor map of the Southeast, the area under the most severe classification, exceptional drought, shrank by more than three-quarters in just a week to remain in only about six counties in northern South Carolina.

The amount of land under the three most serious classes of drought combined fell from 42 percent to 27 percent.

“Something like this jump-starts us into recovery. But if it doesn’t rain for the next month, it will go back to the same story,” South Carolina climatologist Hope Mizzell said.

The rains were a mixed blessing for farmers growing North Carolina’s top crop, tobacco. It won’t help the amount of tobacco grown, but the quality should improve, said North Carolina State University crop science professor Loren Fisher.

In South Carolina, the corn and early planted soybeans are gone, wiped out in large part by a hot, dry spell during critical growing time in June. But the rains are a blessing to peanuts and pastures, where cattle ranchers had feared a disaster but now have hope for fall hay, Boozer said.

“Things are improving for those folks, but as dry as it was early on, these rains now aren’t going to make up for June,” Boozer said.

Farmers in north Georgia welcomed the rains, but Fay damaged corn, cotton and pecans in southern Georgia with wind knocking over the plants and bringing disease to soybeans and peanuts, state Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said.

“Water can be an asset, but it can also be evil to a farmer too,” Irvin said.

The drought hasn’t been bad for all farmers in the Southeast. The dry summer has led to one of the best seasons in a long time for Yates Christmas Tree Farm in Boone, N.C., owner Harry Yates said.

The Fraser firs that Yates grows are dry weather plants and they got rain during the critical growing season in the spring. But Yates said he was still glad to see several inches of rain from the remnants of Fay,

“All that rain was a real good thing,” Yates said. “It builds up the water table and that is going to help everybody.”