07/12/11 — Drought takes toll

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Drought takes toll

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 12, 2011 1:46 PM

Widely scattered rain over the past few days has brought welcome relief for the county's tobacco, cotton and soybean farmers, but came too late to salvage the corn crop.

"I am already hearing a lot of farmers talking about ... corn is an expensive crop to put into the ground and they are really getting frustrated with spending a lot of capital up front and not getting any return," said Wayne County Cooperative Extension Director Kevin Johnson. "The problem being, what is your alternative?

"Of course cotton is looking very lucrative right now, but not everybody can plant cotton. There will be more soybeans planted next year I will tell you that. There are people talking about at least backing far off on their corn acres."

A final crop report was not available prior to press time, but Johnson estimates that close to 25,000 acres were planted in corn and that 10,000 of those acres are almost destroyed countywide.

"But the corn does look especially bad south of the river in the southern part of the county and in the eastern end of the county," Johnson said. "It has been really dry out there, too."

Still, he said, it's too early to place a price tag on the loss.

"The corn crop, we have already gone past our pollination stages," he said. "Some of the corn did get some of the spotty rains, and there will be some corn in the county, but there is a whole lot that is completely destroyed."

More rain won't make a difference, even if the corn received some rain early and the stalk has some size to it, he said.

"Once the ear comes out and the silk pops out that is when the pollination is going to occur," Johnson said. "If it is over 98 degrees, the pollen dies. There are some ears out there that do not have anything in them. I actually went to a field in the eastern end of the county that had some rain. It (corn) looks like it is OK, but when you pull it back, shuck it back, I'd say 80 percent pollination, so you have gaps in the ears.

"That was corn that had some size. You can imagine corn about this size (three to four feet). There is nothing there. It is gone. The farmers can't disk it up and plant soybeans because those herbicides they use in corn would hurt the beans. They don't have any alternatives. There is not much that they can do."

Of the other 15,000 acres, there are places in the county that enjoyed enough rain -- Rosewood, Fremont and toward Princeton, he said.

"There are places where they are going to meet their yield potential," Johnson said. "If they think they can get 120 bushels, they will probably get 120 bushels. They may get more than that. Then you can go to other places were a farmer might have expectation of 120 bushels and he might get 60 or he might get 50. It is hard to say and really get a handle on it."

There are few options for farmers other than to let the crop remain in the field until September when harvesting normally starts, he said.

"Farmers who have crop insurance have to go through with the crop," he said. "Sometimes the insurance will allow the crop to be disked up, other times, not."

Regardless, the insurance does not completely offset the loss, he said.

"It helps," he said. "It is a little bit. The hope is it will cover their expenses but a lot of times it does not."

Technology helps some, too, he said.

"I will say this, the corn varieties are a lot better," Johnson said. "They have bred drought tolerance into these varieties so these varieties today can stand more heat. They need less water than the varieties 20 years. If we were using the varieties from 20 years ago it would have been pretty much total devastation, but some of these varieties are going to fool you.

"They have not had a tremendous amount of rain, but they have had some and they are still probably going to get 50 bushels. In the mid-1980s they would not have picked anything. That is just a product of genetics and technology. That is one of the benefits of technology."

Johnson said the rain did help other crops.

Approximately 9,000 acres of tobacco were planted in the county along with 18,000 to 20,000 acres of cotton and about 60,000 acres if soybeans.

"It (tobacco) is a tough crop and can handle heat and stress to a certain degree," Johnson said. "Cotton looks good in some of the drought areas. It is short, but if there is some rain the cotton will stretch out. It will grow. It will be OK. Soybeans are all right, but need rain. They are short, but if it gets rains will be OK."

Johnson said he knows of some county residents whose wells have gone dry.

"You think about it, we hardly didn't get much rain at all," he said. "I could say we are 8 to 10 inches below normal countywide on rainfall. You start accumulating this year after year and you have a problem. Our ground water is low."

"We need substantial rainfall over a period of time to recharge the ground water."

He said the county has received only about 10 inches of rain all year, with the norm being more than twice that amount.