Wayne Hanna, an agricultural scientist in Tifton, Ga., sees a day when farmers may not have to worry so much about rain.
Pearl millet looks much like young corn, but the promising grain crop doesn't need nearly as much water..
For 30 years, Hanna has worked with pearl millet, a crop that looks and grows much like young corn. But pearl millet doesn't get nearly as thirsty.
When other crops shrivel in dry weather, the millet thrives. Its roots have such a distinct dislike for soggy soil that they almost appear to prefer dusty dirt.
"The roots will come to the top of the ground," said Hanna, a plant breeder with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Pearl millet doesn't like really wet soil."
If the crop likes dry dirt, Georgia fields have had plenty to devote to it during the past three years. As the state's farmers struggle to get water to their crops, pearl millet seems increasingly a crop whose time has come.
"It's probably the most drought-tolerant grain crop you can grow," Hanna said.
Georgia farmers tried growing about 35,000 acres of pearl millet in the early 1990s. But a disease called rust wiped out the crop.
Farmers don't have to worry about that now. "We have the rust disease problem solved," Hanna said.
The state's huge poultry industry could be an ideal market for millet. Broiler growers are interested in substituting pearl millet for some of the corn that goes into chicken feed.
The crop could greatly help poultry producers, since Georgia grain farmers don't grow nearly enough corn to feed the more than 100 million chickens the state's broiler growers produce each month. And corn imported from other areas carries a higher price tag than local grain.
Pearl millet could be a blessing to Georgia's grain farmers, too. Supplying millet to poultry growers could create a potential $45 million Georgia market in about five years.
Perfect for Poultry
"It would fit just perfectly into the poultry industry for Georgia and the Southeast," Hanna said.
Farmers could plant pearl millet seeds, water them for two days and essentially forget about the crop until harvest about three months later. Grain buyers are expected to pay about the same price for pearl millet as they would for corn.
But Georgia farmers have grown corn for generations. Some may not want to risk trying to grow the new crop.
And even if they tried it, they'd have to grow enough pearl millet to supply the potential new markets. They'd have to meet the needs of poultry and other livestock producers.
It's not a sure thing. But with pearl millet's drought-tolerant nature, the exciting poultry-market potential and a lingering drought with no end in sight, switching crops is a tantalizing prospect for farmers.
Hanna hopes to release two new hybrids of pearl millet in the next two to three years. The USDA is thoroughly researching the crop to make sure it lives up to its promises.
The state of Georgia, the ARS and the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences have joined forces to accelerate research of pearl millet. They want to get it into farmers' hands as fast as they can.