With Too Much Rain in the South, Too Little Produce on the Shelves
FORT VALLEY, Ga. — Peaches, the gem of the Southern summer, are just not so sweet this year.
The tomatoes in Tennessee are splitting. Tobacco in North Carolina is drowning. And watermelons, which seem as if they would like all the rain that has soaked the South, have taken perhaps the biggest hit of all.
Some watermelon farmers in South Georgia say they have lost half their crop. The melons that did survive are not anywhere as good as a Southern watermelon ought to be.
“They are awful,” said Daisha Frost, 39, who works in Decatur, Ga. “And this is the time of year when they should be the bomb.”
Day after day, the rains have come to a part of the country that relies on the hot summer sun for everything from backyard tomato sandwiches to billions of dollars in commercial row crops, fruit and peanuts.
While the contiguous United States as a whole is about only 6 percent above its normal rainfall this year, Southern states are swamped. Through June, Georgia was 34 percent above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. Both South Carolina and North Carolina were about 25 percent above normal. Alabama’s rainfall was up 22 percent.
The weather is a particular shock because more than two-thirds of the region was abnormally dry or suffering a drought last year.
Although the total cost to farmers has yet to be tallied, agricultural officials in several states in the Deep South predict severe losses this year that could be in the billions of dollars.
“Nobody’s ever seen it this wet this long,” said Randy Ellis, a Georgia farmer who grows wheat and watermelons, the latter of which end up at East Coast grocery stores.
He usually pulls about 60,000 pounds of melons from an acre of land. This year, he said, he barely got 30,000 pounds. What is worse, the cooler, rainy weather meant the crop was ready after the important Fourth of July window, when prices are at their peak.
Standing water has made cornfields look like rice paddies in some parts of the rural South. Mold is growing on ears of corn, and in some fields entire stalks have toppled. Late blight, a funguslike pathogen, is creeping into tomato fields early and with unusual vigor.
Even though the Georgia pecan crop will not be harvested until fall, there are already worries that the rain will bring on a rash of the fungus commonly called scab disease. Experts are predicting that the crop could be about 15 million pounds lower this year.
There are a few pluses. Irrigation costs are down, and the rain has been surprisingly good for the look of Georgia peaches.
Here in the part of central Georgia where Duke Lane Jr. grows 30 varieties on about 10,000 acres, his fields have already taken on as much water to date as they usually do in an entire year.
“This is something that has never been on our radar,” he said.
Still, the peaches are bigger than usual and shaped perfectly. He had a single peach on his desk that weighed more than a pound.
But even though those peaches look good, the water has diluted the sugar content.
“The flavor is just not there,” said Doris Westmoreland, who works at Lane Southern Orchards. “It’s like having a mouthful of cotton.”
The rain is doing more than compromising quality and bringing on disease. Some fields are so wet that farmers have not been able to get equipment into the fields to harvest.
“With fruit and vegetables, you’ve got to hand-harvest it when it’s ready,” said Charles Hall of the Georgia Watermelon Association. “If you can’t get to it, you lose it.”
Some farmers report wheat sprouting before it can be harvested, and peanut farmers in Alabama, who rely on heavy applications of chemicals, have missed crucial application windows because fields have been too wet to navigate, said Randy Griggs, the executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association.
Peanut harvest usually begins in late August and runs into September, so there is hope that fields might dry out by then.
But Jake Crouch, a climatologist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., is not hopeful.
“Whenever we get in a pattern like this, we kind of stay in the status quo,” he said. “When we’re hot and dry, we stay hot and dry. When we’re wet, we stay wet.”