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Drought hits Alabama corn growers
Farmers expected high profits amid boom in biofuel

MOBILE (AP) — A spring drought coming after an extremely dry winter in Alabama is threatening farmers’ plans to cash in on high corn prices
driven up by the biofuel boom.

North Alabama has the driest conditions in a half-century, but there’s a rain deficit statewide, state climatologist Dr. John Christy at UAH says.

Even usually wet Mobile has a rain deficit of about 10 inches since January.

“It’s been pretty dry since Katrina,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Randy McKee of Mobile, referring to the late August 2005 hurricane.

Many farmers decided the $4-a-bushel corn price — double last year’s price, thanks partly to the growing ethanol industry — was worth rotating away from cotton this year. But with an April 1 corn-planting target, the lack of rain could change those crop plans, farm experts said.

Cotton, planted later, requires less moisture to survive. Alabama growers planted nearly 575,000 acres of cotton in 2006 and were expected to scale back to about 425,000 acres this year, said Buddy Adamson, a cotton expert at the Alabama Farmers Federation.

“There might be as much as 50 percent decrease in cotton in North Alabama, less as you go south,” he said. “I think a lot of that is going to depend on the weather. We’re needing rain to plant this corn.”

Dennis Bragg said he’s switched from cotton to corn on 2,000 acres in Hazel Green, near Huntsville. His irrigation system is running two months earlier than normal, he said.

“Rarely are you begging for rain this time of year,” said Bragg. “We need rain that soaks the subsoil.”

Farmers prepare for drought, hoping to recoup losses with a bumper crop in the next year, but two drought years in a row drains their money reserves.

Another grower, Herman Rochester of Leesburg, who plans to plant 1,800 acres of corn, is also looking for rain.

“We’re probably 12 inches behind in rainfall. We’re hoping one extreme will follow another and we’ll have a wet summer,” he said. “If we get water we’ll be OK.”

About 2.1 billion bushels of the nation’s 10.5 billion bushel 2006 corn crop is going into ethanol production at the 106 ethanol plants in the United States. By the end of this year, another 1.4 billion bushels of corn could be needed for 53 new or expanded ethanol plants, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. The most corn ever produced in the United States was 11.8 billion bushels in 2004.

“Most of the farmers I’ve talked to have locked in a price of $4 a bushel or better,” said Auburn University farm economist Bob Goodman. That’s double last year’s corn price, he said.

Soil moisture is likely adequate for planting and seed germination all across the state, according to soil expert Dr. James Hairston, also at Auburn.

But when the temperature warms and plants start sucking moisture from the ground, Hairston said, “We can get in trouble fast without timely rainfall on our shallow soils in most areas that do not have a high water holding capacity.”

Christy said Huntsville and parts of North Alabama and south-central Tennessee are in the grip of the worst drought in just over 50 years. The area reported rainfall amounts since Jan. 1, 2005 of between 18 and 40 inches below normal, depending on location.

On average, rainfall in the seven-county North Alabama region — Lauderdale, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Limestone, Morgan and Madison — is 18.74 inches below normal for the 26 months from Jan. 1, 2005 through Feb. 28, 2007.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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