By mid-July, some Georgia peanut farmers had already irrigated a drought-ravaged crop as many as 14 times, some had already abandoned acreage and all were watching the weather, hoping for adequate rainfall to finish a crop already behind typical maturity.
Drought may not be the only weather factor peanut farmers fear, either. “A lot of our crop was planted the last week of May or the first week of June,” says John Beasley, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist at Tifton. An early freeze could catch much of the region's acreage in a vulnerable position, he said.
Beasley discussed Southeast peanut crop prospects during the recent Southern Peanut Farmers Federation annual conference in Panama City, Florida.
Beasely said a drought, now into its 20th month, may rival the disastrous drought of 1954. “That's the one everyone refers to when they talk about bad drought years,” Beasely said. “The 2007 drought is worse.”
The drought is reducing acreage of a crop that was already below last year. Estimates put the Georgia crop at about 520,000 planted acres, down from 580,00 and that figure has bumped up and down since early spring. Beasley said early estimates put expected plantings at 500,000 acres. Planting-time drought dropped expectations closer to 400,000 acres. And then a tropical storm brought rain to much of Georgia's peanut belt. “That rain took 12 to 18 hours to fall, a good soaking rain,” Beasley said. But accumulations varied from as little as .02 of an inch to 5 inches.
Beasely said Alabama acreage also dropped this year, to about 140,000. Florida and Mississippi also reduced peanut acreage.
“Overall, we're down about 5 percent from 2006 in the region,” he said. “And we still have a question of how many of those acres will be carried to harvest. We're already seeing some abandonment.”
Beasely said as much as 40 percent of Georgia's peanut crop is not irrigated and water demand will push energy costs up significantly on irrigated fields. “Rainfall patterns for the rest of the season will be crucial,” he said. “Part of the Southeast got a good rain the week of July 14, but the amount and frequency from here to harvest will be important. With late planting, if we get cold temperatures early, we will be in tough shape.”
Beasley said the region will harvest some peanuts in November.
Ben Bowden, an Alabama grower, cautioned farmers to allow this late-maturing crop to mature. “We will have a lot of late peanuts,” Bowden said. “We can't be in a hurry to dig them. Watch maturity.”
Bowden recalled one of the first peanut crops he made, several decades ago, that were not up to par. He dug most fields early but left one until weeks later. That one produced significantly more peanuts than the rest, he said.
Beasely said growers are battling weeds in the 2007 crop. “PPI and pre-emergence herbicide applications did not work as well in drought conditions,” he said.
“Lesser cornstalk borers may be trouble. Cutworms cost us last year and corn earworms may build up in peanuts as the corn crop matures.”
He says tomato spotted wilt virus is present in fields. “It will be more of a problem later in the season. “Leafspot is building up and conditions for white mold are favorable. Early drought stress followed by warm, wet weather may cause an explosion.”
Beasley said farmers an still make a good crop but they need a little help from the weather and good management.