Houston & Peach

Farmers scramble to get row crops planted after rainy weather

HAWKINSVILLE — A thick cloud trails Rodney Dawson’s tractor as it drops peanut seed in a freshly harrowed field off U.S. 129.

At the end of the row, Dawson swings the tractor to a stop and climbs out. He and workers pull 50 pound bags off a trailer, rip them open and fill the 12 containers on the planter with more seed.

Dawson heads off again, kicking up another cloud.

“You like to see a little dust fly,” he says.

It’s a sight Georgia farmers have seen too little of the past month, as drenching rains have kept them out of the fields during crucial planting time. Dawson, whose family farms in Pulaski and Wilcox counties, has seen as much as 12 inches of rain in some spots.

As a result, farmers are scrambling to get wheat and other grains harvested and row crops planted — or replanted.

“It’s been a headache to get in the field, to get the equipment to stand up in it,” Dawson said. “We should have been through with this three weeks ago.”

The peanuts that Dawson planted last week will not qualify for federal crop insurance. The Georgia Peanut Commission and Georgia Farm Bureau both asked for an extension of the May 31 planting deadline for peanuts, but the requests were denied. At the time, less than half of the state’s peanut crop had been planted.

Today is the planting deadline for cotton to be fully insured. Dawson and other farmers are racing to get the seed in the ground, not so much to meet the deadline but to make sure plants reach full maturity before a possible early frost this fall.

“On a normal year, you never know when that’s going to be. We’re pushing it. ... If we have a decent growing season, as far as rainfall and don’t get an early frost, things could work out. Everything’s got to go well.”

NOT ALL BAD

Family farms have been on the decline for decades, but agriculture remains Georgia’s largest industry, generating more than $5.1 billion annually to the state’s economy, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

The state is the country’s largest producer of peanuts and ranks in its top three in cotton production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Georgia farmers will plant 940,000 acres of cotton this year.

Richey Seaton, executive director of the Georgia Cotton Commission, expects the acreage to be closer to 1 million. In the early 1900s, when cotton was king, the state grew about 5 million acres.

“Cotton works well for our farmers here,” Seaton said. “It’s a fairly drought-tolerant plant. Cotton’s a good fit for us.”

As of early last week, cotton farmers were about 75 percent finished with planting, Seaton said. The boggy fields, however, have kept farmers from other field work.

“One of the problems farmers are having is being able to get in and apply herbicide and other applications,” Seaton said.

Still, recent USDA progress reports rate 47 percent of the crop as good and 37 percent as fair. Five percent was rated excellent.

“This is the first spring in several years that we’ve had good moisture to plant our crop,” he said.

“Our crop conditions look good. But as they say, we’re always about a week or two away from a drought in Georgia because of the soil’s moisture-holding condition.”

Farmers, Seaton said, are doing what they always do.

“They get the crops in the ground, take care of them and play the waiting game.”

Armond Morris, chairman of the Georgia Peanut Commission, farms almost 2,000 acres in south Georgia. About half of that is in cotton, and he has 700 acres in peanuts, which he managed to plant before last month’s deadline. The rest is in corn.

“The crops look good,” Morris said. “We’ve got a little bit that may have drowned. We’re working through it.”

The rain, he said, has been “a blessing for corn,” a moisture-sensitive row crop.

Dawson’s family operation usually grows about 1,500 acres of peanuts and 5,000 acres of cotton. Fortunately, most planting in “dry land,” or fields without irrigation systems, was completed before the recent rains, he said.

Five or six miles from where Dawson was working last week, fields of peanuts planted before the rain have sprung from the ground.

Dawson and other farmers usually plant peanuts or cotton in grain fields after the grains are harvested. But because weather delayed harvesting, they’ll probably switch to soybeans, which might be better suited for the late planting.

“You’ve got to deal with what Mother Nature deals to you,” Dawson said.

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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