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Georgia Cotton, Peanuts Miss Badly Needed Rain

Georgia farmers were hoping Hurricane Bertha would help soak their parched peanut and cotton fields. But the massive storm turned northward, and the hot sun kept beating down on cropland.

No one hoped Bertha would hit Georgia. But many desperately wanted rain from the storm's outer edge.

Cotton and peanuts have entered critical reproductive stages when their water needs are high. Cotton has to have water to fruit and produce fiber. Peanuts need it to bloom and produce the "pegs" that support peanut pods.

In all, cotton and peanuts have an economic impact of more than $3.6 billion in Georgia. And without regular rains, cotton and peanut farmers could face a disaster.

Many farmers rely on irrigation when rains don't come. But with only a third of Georgia's cotton and just over half its peanut acreage under irrigation, these and other crops are slowly drying up.

"In most areas, it's very hard to make a cotton crop with only irrigation," said Steve M. Brown, a cotton agronomist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. Farmers' irrigation systems can't always supply as much water as cotton needs.

Dry weather into early July in Georgia and much of the Southeast cotton belt just about shut down growth in cotton plants. Without water, the plants can't take up nutrients that help form the cotton fruits, or bolls, that produce the fiber.

Brown said scattered showers can have another effect on cotton: widely gapped boll production. Cotton plants reach a "cutout" point when they stop producing the blooms that later form bolls. After that cutout, it takes about three weeks to start blooming again.

When the plants reach cutout before it rains, he said, the resulting gap in the bolls' maturity makes it hard to time harvesting. Some bolls are ready to pick, while others on the same plant may still need 30 more days.

There is some good news. The insects farmers usually battle have hardly shown up this year. "We're almost scared -- it's that light," Brown said.

Through mid-July, Georgia farmers had sprayed insecticides on less than 10 percent of their cotton acres. In an average year, they would have sprayed nearly all of it.

And many farmers who had sprayed had sprayed only once. Often they have sprayed four or five times by mid-July.

In 1995, Georgia farmers planted 1.5 million acres of cotton and harvested nearly all of it. That puts Georgia third in the nation behind Texas and California. The '95 Georgia crop, the state's largest since 1918, was valued at $791 million, up 32 percent over '94.

For peanuts, "our most critical water-need period extends from now until Labor Day," said John Beasley, an Extension Service peanut agronomist. Nearly all of the Georgia crop is in the bloom stage or older.

During that time, Georgia peanuts need more than 2 inches of water per week to grow the pegs and pods needed to make a good crop.

Potential yields are already dropping. "Until substantial rain falls on the crop," he said, "we'll keep losing yield. We won't know for certain how much yield we will lose until we harvest in September and October."

Hot, dry weather means, too, that when rain does fall, it evaporates quickly. Beasley said nearly one-third of an inch of water evaporates from the soil every day.

Dry fields create another problem. Any pesticide, whether for insects, weeds or disease, needs water to work effectively.

Beasley said a small amount of rain can increase the risk of a common peanut disease, too. "Hot, humid conditions favor leaf spot development," he said. "So peanut farmers have to stay on a 10- to 14-day spray schedule or follow a leaf spot advisory system."

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