As withering drought worsens, Georgia crops at risk

Associated Press • May 11, 2007 at 9:12 AM

ATLANTA - At Hillcrest Orchards in the north Georgia mountains, the annual Apple Pickin' Jubilee will go on as planned this fall - although the state's most withering drought in decades threatens to destroy the country festival's namesake.

"We just hope we still have something for them to pick," said Janice Hill, whose family farms the 50-acre orchard. and sells fried apple pies and other treats to tourists who visit Ellijay, the mountain town in the heart of Georgia's apple-growing region.

Apples, peaches and other crops that help make agriculture a $50 billion industry in Georgia are suffering badly under the drought, which is being categorized as extreme in 33 Georgia counties.

Unless the state sees a dramatic deluge of rainfall in the next few months - and experts aren't predicting one - some farmers could lose their entire harvests, crippling the economy in Georgia's farm communities and driving up prices on peanut butter, fresh produce and the other crops that survive.

"It's a critical situation," said state Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, the long-serving state farming chief. "I've been here 38 years and I've never seen this before."

There have been longer and harsher droughts in the past. But Irvin said he can't remember a year that was so dry this early.In all, 33 of Georgia's 159 counties are classified as under extreme drought, a condition that weather experts expect to see only once every 50 years. Another 46 counties are rated as having severe drought, meaning the dry spell is as bad as experts would expect once in 20 years.The rest of the state is under a moderate drought. Last June, state environmental officials banned lawn watering between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and said residents may only water every other day.Last month, the ban was extended from 10 a.m. to midnight, with officials saying stricter measures may be needed if the drought continues.For farmers, apples and peaches are the two crops that have already seen the biggest losses. Irvin said the peach crop in north Georgia has been totally destroyed for many farmers and seen a 70 percent loss in a band of peach-growing counties in middle Georgia.Apple farmers, who grow almost entirely in the cooler counties in the north Georgia mountains, have seen losses of 80-90 percent.Those crops were first hammered by an unseasonably late freeze over Easter weekend, then the drought. Spiraling fuel prices _ which skyrocket when farmers have to irrigate their fields more often than expected _ have also hurt farmers, experts say."Georgia agriculture has kind of gotten a triple whammy this year, between the freeze, the drought and higher fuel prices," said state climatologist David Stooksbury. "This is just not looking good."The planting season for Georgia's two biggest cash crops, cotton and peanuts, is just beginning. But hopes for their yields already are being ratcheted down as farmers wait longer and longer to plant _ hoping for a soaking rain to help them get started.During a normal year, 31 percent of Georgia's cotton and 13 percent of its peanuts would already be planted.This year, only 11 percent of cotton and 5 percent of the peanut crop is in the ground."With these crops that are yet to be planted, what you'll probably see is farmers reducing their inputs to keep from putting good money after bad," said Archie Flanders, an economist with the Center for Agribusiness & Economic Development at the University of Georgia.The end result likely will be higher prices at the grocery store and produce stand.Peanut butter prices are the most likely increase consumers will notice, because of the large percentage of the nation's peanuts that Georgia farmers produce, Flanders said.He said fresh fruits and vegetables, from blueberries to watermelons, also probably will cost more _ at least in Georgia and surrounding states."The fresh produce that people are used to buying will certainly have a higher price," he said.At Hillcrest Orchards, Hill said she'd be satisfied if she can save enough of her apples to let visitors pick some at special events like the September festival.But the low-hanging dwarf trees she plants so customers can reach the fruit have shallow root structures that aren't as good at sucking water out of the ground. She's already lost as much as 80 percent of the crop and fears she might lose more."It's like you work all year and then you're not going to get paid for it," said Hill. "But, we're still hoping."

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