When rain keeps on dropping, you can't pick very much cotton. Cotton that gets wet loses its value. And, for Georgia farmers, that's no reason to whistle Dixie.
"We've had over 20 inches of rain since Sept. 25," said Steve Brown, a University of Georgia Extension Service agronomist. "Rain on cotton that's ready to harvest really declines its color, its quality, its grade and makes for considerable losses to Georgia farmers."
Brown estimates those losses to be between $50 million and $100 million just in quality factors alone in the 1997 Georgia crop. The crop has already been damaged by late-summer drought and insects.
Last year, Georgia ranked third in the nation's cotton production, behind Texas and California, bringing in more than 2 million bales from nearly 1.35 million acres harvested.
"Statistics indicate that we still have harvested only about 77 percent of our crop, compared to the more than 90 percent normally harvested at this time," Brown said. "Almost 25 percent of the crop is still in the field and farmers are really pushing to get it out."
Continued rainy weather is halting the harvest.
"A lot of folks are discouraged," Brown said. "Fields are so wet, it's going to take considerable drying before they can get back in and harvest."
Patience has always been the hallmark of prudent farmers, and this year is no different.
"Keep plugging," Brown advised. "When you get days of sunshine that allow you back in the field, try to make the most of it. Get just as much cotton as absolutely possible."
Getting in the field is a cinch.ÿ Getting out of the field is a sticky and expensive problem for farmers.
"Most farmers who have picked cotton the past few weeks have been stuck numerous times, too many to count," Brown said. "There is so much incentive to get in the field.ÿ And yet when you get stuck, there's a lot of machinery that can be bent and twisted and damaged. So it's a trade- off."
Dry weather is still a ways off as rain still dominates the forecast.
"It just means more delayed harvest," Brown said. "We're going to see cotton harvested well into January, I suspect, in some areas of the state."
Mother Nature did keep Jack Frost at bay until mid-November, which Brown says is the best farmers can hope for.
"The cool weather really hasn't been positive or negative," he said. "We didn't get an early October freeze. That would have killed us.ÿ But not seeing cold weather until mid-November in most places in Georgia probably helped us.ÿ The plants were able to make a little more cotton that we otherwise would have lost."
Despite widespread drought, last year's state average production was 747 pounds per acre. Since August, this year's crop estimates have been coming down, down, down, Brown said. The latest USDA estimate, released Dec. 10, predicts a harvest of 662 pounds per acre in Georgia.
"We could wind up with an average of 100 pounds below last year," he said. "It may even be more than that."
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)