Drought Hits Peanut Belt; Farmers Expect Lowest Yields Since 1980

DRY SPELL

WILBUR GAMBLE bends down, turns over a big clump of cut vines, and looks for peanuts. In a normal year, there would be 300. Today, there is one. ``As long as I have been farming, I have never seen something like this,'' he says, cracking the peanut shell with his thumb.

Mr. Gamble is smack in the middle of the worst peanut harvest in at least 10 years. A severe drought has squeezed the United States' largest peanut-producing area, stretching from southeast Alabama to southern Georgia and northern Florida.

``This is without a doubt the worst crop since 1980, and that was a disaster,'' says Keith Adams, spokesman for the Georgia Peanut Commission.

Last week, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that yields in Georgia would reach only 1,900 pounds per acre - down 30 percent from last year's yield. That figure is even smaller than the disastrous 1980 crop, when 1,935 pounds were harvested per acre. Alabama officials estimate a 25 percent drop from last year's harvest; Florida yields could fall 15 percent.

The three states account for two-thirds of the US peanut crop.

The problem is drought. A crop-withering dry spell has settled on all three peanut-producing regions this summer - Texas, Virginia-North Carolina, and the Southeastern belt - says Peter Leavitt, an agricultural meteorologist for Weather Services Corporation in Bedford, Mass.

Mr. Leavitt notes that the dry spell is not as widespread as the Southeast's severe 1986 drought. And it is spotty, hitting some areas full force and leaving other localities untouched.

Here in Terrell County, for example, it hasn't rained since July 5. Rainfall at one reporting station in nearby Albany, Ga., is 12.07 inches below its normal rate of 40 inches a year. But at the other station in Albany, it is only 2.79 inches below normal for the year.

Mr. Gamble estimates his peanuts will yield only 200 to 800 pounds an acre compared with a normal 2,500 to 3,000 pounds.

The Peanut Advisory Board calculates that, based on last week's USDA peanut estimate, farmers in the Southeast will lose $150 million in revenue this year. That means a $575 million blow to the Southeast's regional economy, says Mitch Head, the advisory board's executive director.

Georgia appears to be hit the hardest by the drought. The state's Agricultural Statistic Service last week rated 65 percent of the peanut crop as poor or very poor. This time last year, 75 percent of the crop was rated good to excellent.

And peanuts are not the whole story. ``The crop conditions for all the crops are off significantly,'' says Mike Hammer, deputy state statistician.

The state's Sept. 1 yield estimates for corn, soybeans, and cotton are all down 27 to 35 percent from a year ago. Only tobacco is showing signs of better yields than last year, says Mr. Hammer.

Peanuts, though, traditionally have been the stable cash crop for south Georgia. They have become especially important as farmers here have tried to recuperate after the farm financial crisis of the mid-1980s.

``It was just getting better,'' Gamble says. ``If we could have had the same crop that we had in the last two years!''

Going into the season, roughly a quarter of the county's 115 or so commercial farmers were in financial trouble, according to Harold Wilson, county agent for the federal government's Agricultural Extension Service.

But this summer's drought will compound farmers' woes, forcing out those without crop insurance and pushing the insured farmers closer to a point of no return, adds Mr. Wilson.

At this point, the only way to avoid that financial deterioration is federal disaster assistance, Gamble says.

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