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Drought Has Many Farmers Mulling Future


Photo: Joe Courson

Sharing the tailgate of his pickup with his grandson Tra, Jimmie Lee Moss (left), ponders his farm's future.
If any farmer could make a profit farming, it would have to be Jimmie Lee Moss. But in the fourth straight year of a drought, the Irwin County farmer now questions whether his children and grandchildren should follow in his dusty footsteps.

Moss continues to scratch out hope from dry fields. "There's moisture down there," Moss says as he digs through bright, sandy, dry soil. "There are peanuts down there."

But Moss says he hasn't really made a profit since 1979. "I've been breaking even, that's about all," he says as he sits on the tailgate of his truck with his 19-year-old grandson Tra.

Only Full-time Farmer Left

A few yards away, an old farm house illustrates the good old days. "Back in the years, four or five families lived on the farm and worked it," Moss remembers.

Now, at age 71, Moss is the only full-time worker of the 350-acre farm, a bit larger than the Georgia average of 222 acres. He doesn't have a lot of the modern conveniences.

The tractor he used to plant his peanuts doesn't have air conditioning. A piece of clothes-hanger wire keeps him from using the tractor's right brake because it needs expensive major repair. He uses old, labor-intensive irrigation pipes, popular back in the 1950s and ‘60s, to water his crops.

Doing Without

"Like many farmers, he's gone without things," said Keith Kightlinger, who analyzes farm records for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "He's survived by making do."

Moss figures it would take about $100,000 to modernize his farm. But he's reluctant to borrow the money, even though he's healthy. "It's too risky at my age to try to make the money to pay for it," he says.

For farmers who borrow a lot of money to make capital improvements, Kightlinger said, it can take several years for their investments to pay off the debt. "One or two bad years in a row," he said, "can often just completely wipe that out."

Living on the Edge

Moss represents many farmers who live on the financial edge these days. "Most farmers today," Kightlinger said, "are looking for ways to reduce their financial risk."

In Moss' case, he may allow two of his sons to borrow the money for the improvements. He'll help them work the land, while they handle the finances.

But when it comes to Tra becoming a farmer, he has a strong opinion. "I hope not," he says.

But Tra doesn't rule it out. "I don't know what to do," he says. "I guess it depends on when I get out of college, how I feel then." Teenagers often choose to learn about life the hard way.

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