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Alabama growers watching skies, hoping for rain

Heath Potter, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System regional agent in northwest Alabama, thought he had been offered his first faint glimmer of hope at Sunday school April 1.

One of Potter’s classmates reported he had measured 2.5 inches of rain at his home east of Moulton that morning. Initially greeted with the predictably and loudly expressed “Really?” from other class members, it turned out to be an April Fool’s joke.

As it turns out, this year’s scant rainfall may prove to be one for the history books. And what little rain farmers received over the past weekend actually worked to dampen rather than raise their spirits.

“The rain didn’t brighten prospects at all,” says Charles Burmester, an Extension regional agronomist based at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center in Belle Mina. “In fact, it really kind of deepened it.”

Burmester says producers are pinning their hopes on a cold front expected to move through the valley this weekend. But unless this rainfall proves to be a “general” rather than a “scattered” event, it probably won’t do much good, he says.

Agents already have noted some troubling signs associated with longstanding dryness.

In the northwest county of Franklin, farmers already have expressed concern that “the corn crop just isn’t going to come up,” says county coordinator Tim Reed.

“They’re going out and digging and investigating,” Reed says, adding that those with crop insurance likely will have to replant corn — not a pleasant prospect, he says, considering that seed stock already is in perilously short supply, given the nationwide enthusiasm for planting corn.

In fact, Reed cites a Wall Street Journal article published this weekend reporting that one major seed distributor “already has sold out of all its leading [corn] seed varieties.”

Rules vary with different crop insurance programs. Under some programs, farmers will not be allowed to replant any crop other than corn before May 1, Reed says, adding that this is only the beginning of their problems.

“Farmers may not be able to get free seed to replace the corn that didn’t come up, because seed replacement programs vary from company from company and from variety to variety,” he says.

If that is not challenging enough, farmers who applied atrazine, a broadleaf herbicide, face yet another restriction because they can’t plant cotton or soybeans behind this chemical.

“The only remaining option is grain sorghum, though there aren’t as many places to sell this crop compared with corn,” Reed says.

Likewise, some of the region’s co-ops already have noted lagging fertilizer sales — a reflection of farmers’ growing fears of extended drought and mounting fertilizer prices, though producers continue to fertilize pastures.

Meanwhile, some growers have expressed an interest in bailing out of corn in favor of the region’s historic standby crop — cotton. But the prospects for cotton, which many Tennessee Valley growers ironically abandoned in droves this year to plant corn, also will turn out to be grim without adequate rainfall, Burmester says.

Despite heavier rainfall in other parts of the state, the prospects beyond the Tennessee Valley don’t look much better, according to Dale Monks, an Extension crop physiologist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.

“It (last weekend’s rain) will help get grass growing, but we desperately need more rain to get the crops up and growing,” Monks says, adding that Alabama farmers are “entering a critical time for corn, as well as for crops they’re going to begin planting this month.”

Holding a somewhat more optimistic view is David Derrick, an Extension regional agronomy agent in northeastern Alabama. For now, Derrick says, farmers in his region remain doggedly optimistic, looking to this week’s expected rains as the leg up from Mother Nature they’ve been expecting.

“They really think they have a pretty good chance (for making up for this rain deficit) within the next few days,” he says. “Come a good rain, farmers will feel a lot better and the situation will also look a whole lot better.”

Even in drought-stressed western Lauderdale County, farmers are still holding out hope, Potter says. The scant rainfall they received last week in the region — roughly four-tenths to six-tenths of an inch — was enough to encourage farmers to return to the fields to finish planting their corn crop, he says.

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