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Crossing the Pembroke desert

Where grass is greener

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POSTED: June 8, 2011 12:11 p.m.

Note: No sooner did I post this column about drought than it starts to rain in Pembroke. Native Americans do rain dances and the Great Spirit rewards them. I write about drought and God makes me a fool. I’m glad to be a fool for rain.

I wanted to finish off my series of columns on plant breeding, but the drought we find ourselves in has become the 800-pound gorilla in the room for the local farming community.
I just cannot let it pass unrecognized. All you fine folk in Richmond Hill got a good drenching of 2.66 inches of rain on May 27. The folk in Ellabell got some relief from that system, too, but the far south end of the county did not get enough to even keep the dust down.
Worst of all, the farmland in the north end of the county didn’t get a drop. If the world was fair, all 2.66 inches would have fallen on the farm fields.
I look at the ET rates – the evapotranspiration rates – to see how the crop stress for water stacks up. The ET rate is the amount of water lost to the soil from both evaporation from the soil surface and the amount drawn out by plants. So far this year, the north end of the county is more than 6.5 inches of rain in the hole, and 5 inches of that happened since May 1.
I have stated the obvious before – that farming takes a lot of faith. Farmers in the north end were all set to have another decent growing year and had to make the call to “dust in” their cotton seed and trust that the rain would come at the right times and with the right quantities.
I do not think most of us appreciate what is on the line here, and I feel the need to bring you up to speed.
First off, farming is a lot more scientific and technical than the average person realizes. This is just a very brief example. The amount of seed needed to plant an acre of cotton costs about $100. Yeah, that’s right – per acre. So let’s say for sake of the argument that there are 2,000 acres of cotton planted in Bryan County. Our farmers right now have taken a leap of faith and put about $200,000 worth of cotton seed in the ground. Most of it is still sitting there waiting for rain.
I was talking with Bob Floyd last week about the problems facing cotton farmers. Bob came into the office from his fields wearing about a quarter-acre of dust. He said a quarter-inch of rain would not help him nor hurt him because it would be gone so fast the seed would not get wet enough to swell.
What he and the other farmers fear is a good inch of rain – enough to get the seed sprouted and the cotyledons out of the ground – and then have no rain following on. The seed would have sprouted but would just wither in the field, resulting in a total crop loss.
One of our growers has a low spot in one of his fields where there was enough accumulated moisture for the cotton seed to sprout, and he lost several acres of that, too – not directly due to the drought, but to the deer. The drought is in the woods, too, and there is nothing left for the deer to eat. Cotton is not a preferred diet for deer, but when times get tough, anything with a little moisture will have to do. They browsed it right to the ground.
On Sunday, news broke of about 18 horses being abandoned for dead at a stable operation in Long County. In one of the “Pirates of the Carribean” movies, Capt. Jack Swallow asserts that the lowest level of hell is reserved for traitors and mutineers. I would add those who deliberately neglect, mistreat or abuse animals, particularly livestock, to that list.
But the challenge for wildlife during a drought is just as lethal as that faced by the horses in Long County. And if something does not break soon, it will start working on the health of the farming community, as well.
If the local effects of the drought are not enough for you, take a look across the U.S. Here in Georgia we face crop losses due to drought. The Mississippi Valley is under water and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been lost for production agriculture for several years. Texas is in a worse drought than we are.
If the rain does not come soon, I see no reason to expect the production of raw agricultural materials to blunt the increasing costs for food clothing and fuel. We have enough water across the U.S. It just is not equitably distributed at the moment.
In spite of what you see on the news from the Mississippi Valley, here in Georgia, please pray for rain.

Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County and can be reached at dgardner@uga.edu

 

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