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Drought Damaging Rural Counties' Economies

A few miles from Lakeland, Ga., farmer Glyndon Register walks in one of his powder-dry cotton fields.

"I've never seen the subsoil moisture as low as it is now," he said. "The dirt's so hard, the seed that did germinate turned and started going the other way."

About 40 percent of the seeds never broke through the hard, dry soil. The cotton that did grow looks deceptively healthy.

"It should be probably twice as big as what it is right now," he said. "The drought has really taken a toll on it this year."

Worst May Be Yet to Come

Worse yet, University of Georgia agricultural scientists say the worst could be yet to come. Cotton and peanuts, the state's top two income-producing row crops, just reached their critical time for water.

The two crops, which bring Georgia farmers about half of their $2 billion annual income from crops, need about 2 inches of water each week.

"If we don't get rainfall between the middle of June and early to mid-September, it could be devastating to our peanut crop," said John Beasley, a peanut scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

That's the worst news yet in Lakeland, where every dollar a Lanier County farmer spends generates an extra $2.50 in economic benefit, according to UGA economists.

Rural Economies Hurting

"We've already had some of our local businesses lay off people because they didn't have the work," said Elvin Andrews, Lanier County Extension Service agent. "They weren't making the sales they normally do to warrant keeping their employees on."

Andrews said a troubling sign of the times is that last year's forestry sales almost tripled in the county. Farmers were converting their standing timber to cash, he said, to make up for farming losses.

Unfortunately, this year won't make things any better. "We're going to be hurt," Andrews said. "Even with normal weather, we won't produce a normal crop this year."

Jim Watson, chief loan officer with Farmers and Merchants Bank in Lakeland, made about $5 million worth of operating, equipment and land loans to Lanier County farmers this year. And he knows some of his customers won't be able to pay back all they owe.

Farmers Struggling to Survive

"I'm afraid some of those who are highly leveraged and owe a good bit of money are going to have a hard time coming through this," he said.

Watson sees the drought's effects on Lanier and other rural counties in real terms, and it bothers him. "If you have any compassion at all, yeah, it concerns you," he said. "It hurts us some to see this going on."

Down the block from the bank, third-generation car and truck dealer Dana Giddens sees the drought affecting his business long before harvest.

"Our real strong buyers are kind of waiting to see what happens," Giddens said. "Most of our buyers seem to be a little apprehensive. That's always the subject of conversation: how dry it is."

The Drought Goes On

It's terribly dry, said Bert Simpson, whose inch-long grass crunches as he walks through a pasture near town. "It ought to be 10 or 12 inches tall right now," he said.

But the pasture must provide food for his 120 cows. "We usually get two to three cuttings of hay off this pasture," he said, "and I think we'll be lucky to get one this year."

He hasn't been lucky so far. Without rain, his cows' luck could run out. "We'll try and feed them as long as we can," Simpson said. "And if we can't, we'll have to sell them. That's about the only choice we've got."

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