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Drought may keep farmers from cashing in on corn crop

By Kristen Bishop 340-2443

Corn may not turn out to be the financial boon local farmers hoped would help make up for 2006 losses.

Farmers trying to cash in on high corn prices rotated as much as 50 percent of their cotton acreage to corn this year, but the second drought in two years may keep them from seeing any significant gains.

Corn prices, at about $4 a bushel, are nearly double what they were last year because of the booming ethanol industry.

According to Alabama Cooperative Extension System surveys filled out by farmers, cotton acreage in Lawrence, Colbert, Lauderdale and Franklin counties may be down roughly 37 percent. Corn acreage could be up 92 percent, said Heath Potter, a regional extension agent based in Moulton.

But corn requires more water to survive than cotton, which is planted later in the year. Drought conditions are causing many farmers to hold back on some of their planned corn acreage, said Potter.

The U.S. Drought Monitor identifies much of North Alabama as having severe drought conditions. Some areas, including Madison County, meet the criteria for the extreme drought category, said National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Troutman.

At this time in 2006, the Muscle Shoals area had received 2.41 inches of rain, and 2.3 inches had fallen over the Decatur area, he said. This year, Muscle Shoals has received only 1.45 inches and Decatur has received only 0.71 inches.

Two drought years in a row could be devastating to area farmers.

"We're coming off of a bad year, and corn prices are almost twice as high as they were last year," said Steve Ford, a Courtland farmer. "Here was a chance for farmers to dig out of a bad situation, and we're not sure we'll even be able to do that."

Staggered planting

Many farmers have staggered their corn planting to prevent having to harvest and store it all at the same time, but the lack of rain has prevented the seed from germinating. If it rains this weekend, as expected, the seed will all germinate at the same time, defeating the purpose of staggered planting.

"If it rains, those seeds could lay there for two weeks and germinate at the same time as the ones planted yesterday," said Potter. "They are in essence the same age because of the rain that just came."

There is a 40 percent chance of showers Saturday evening and a 60 percent chance by 12 a.m. on Sunday, said Troutman.

"We're expecting between one-half to one inch of rain for the most part," he said. "Then, on Tuesday, there will be a cold front approaching from the west bringing a 30 percent chance of rain by the evening."

The expected rainfall may bring hope to farmers, but will not come close to relieving this year's deficit.

"It would take quite some time to make up for that," said Troutman. "We'd have to have rainfall amounts between one and two inches from now until five months from now to account for what we've missed."

If a significant amount of rain doesn't fall over the area, some farmers will save their acreage for cotton, which is more likely to survive in dry conditions. But for others, it may be too late.

Certain herbicides sprayed over the land before planting corn destroys other crops like cotton. Another factor is farmer's insurance that sometimes only covers acreage that has been planted.

Ford said a lot of farmers finished planting corn before they knew there was a drought. He stopped planting last week because of the dry conditions.

"We couldn't even get the seed in the ground. If it doesn't rain, we have to plant anyway because our insurance is so good this year," said Ford who runs his Courtland farm with his father-in-law, Jimmy Blythe.

"The other thing is that we've sprayed herbicide that will keep us from planting anything else. We'll rethink that next year, but we hadn't considered it because this has never happened before."

Ford is taking advantage of a low-cost insurance program, called Group Risk Income Protection, designed to help farmers protect their crops from disastrous losses.

The government may also provide relief to farmers hurt by the drought. The House passed a spending bill March 20 that includes $29 billion for domestic programs and assistance for agriculture producers.

But President Bush is threatening to veto the bill because it calls for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2008.

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