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Bad weather, storm cotton and other woes
Now and Then
Roger Branch - photo by root

The advent of hurricane season — particularly news of a storm heading this way from somewhere — always stirs up memories from life on the farm.

Perhaps, no other way of making a living is as dependent on weather as farming. Soil has to be warm enough and properly moist for planting. A “cold snap” thereafter could stunt or destroy tender plants. A “dry spell” instead of spring rains would also hinder proper growth, or worse.

Watering as needed to sustain growth and production of fruit or fiber was a constant concern. The prayer — whether conscious or not — was for enough rain but not too much. Growing things require water on a regular basis, but a deluge led to “washes” (small gullies) or the drowning of crops in low-lying, poorly drained fields. Soaking rain accompanied by strong wind produced fields of leaning corn or tobacco. Corn would usually straighten itself, drawn by the sun, but tobacco had to be righted by hand.

The opposite of too much is too little. Drought is nature’s monster face. From being slightly concerned when rain did not come when first needed to the point of being broken by crop failure, farmers and farmers' wives glanced skyward all day hoping for a gathering and darkening of clouds and at night paced their yards looking for lightening from clouds in the direction from which rain usually came. Anxiety was and is real because crop failure often means loss of farm (and home), livestock, equipment. Drought worry is corrosive, eating away at minds, bodies and relationships.

Along the way, irrigation came to South Georgia farmers, applied only to tobacco using water from ponds pumped through metal pipes to an array of sprinklers. Moving pipes and sprinklers from place to place across fields was hot and often wet work or at night rather cold and wet. The sprinkler system gave way to “guns” that shot streams of water into the air to break apart into something like drops. In both cases a limiting factor was the availability of water.

The liberating innovation was the center-pivot irrigation system, which draws water from high-capacity wells sunk deep into the aquifer and can be lengthened to cover many acres. Except for maintenance and periodic monitoring, this system is almost labor-free. Tobacco now is grown by a few farmers who plant many acres, but other crops are also grown under irrigation, notably sweet onions, which require much water at maturity to produce the advertised sweetness. It is not unusual to see fields of corn and peanuts being irrigated.

There are two limiting factors to modern irrigation. The first is cost. Pumps require fuel or electricity and the profit margin for most crops is slender.

The other limiting factor is availability of water, similar to the old way of irrigating. Like farm ponds, the capacity of aquifers is not infinite. The Floridan Aquifer supplies most of south Georgia and Florida with water. And then there is agricultural irrigation, the largest single drain on the aquifer, which is already over-taxed.

There are two issues: too much withdrawal and too little replacement. Our much abused aquifer is recharged miles away in the hill country where rainfall must penetrate deep underground into the water bearing limestone through which it makes its way under pressure generated by gravity to the coast and beyond. However, too little rain is falling on absorbent soil to recharge the aquifer because the area increasingly is covered by buildings and paved for highways and parking lots. Rain runs off into streams, most of which lead the water away from the recharging area.

The Floridan, like the Ogallala Aquifer in the west, is in trouble partly due to intensive agricultural extraction. Artesian springs and wells, once numerous, have gone dry. The issue is not new and the problem will get worse. When reduced pressure allows salt water intrusion into the aquifer and destroys water supplies for coastal cities, industries, military installations and resorts, it will be a crisis, perhaps one beyond fixing. Nobody knows how to recharge an aquifer with potable water.

But I digress. Farmers dreaded hurricanes that retained their destructive punch far inland. If that happened after cotton bolls opened but before it could be picked, wind blew the rain-soaked cotton onto the ground. Any that remained was dirty and stained. Salvaged “storm cotton” was detected even after it was ginned and penalized in price.

My sharpest memory of such a storm dates to 1944 — probably late summer — two or three months before my 10th birthday. Earlier that year, we had moved into a new farm but into a 70-plus year-old house, the main room being a log structure built for my father’s uncle shortly after the Civil War. There was no warning about danger from the storm. Sometime during the night, wind lifted the gable end off of the old house and deposited it some distance away in the cotton patch, fortunately a few weeks before the bolls opened. With wind and rain pouring in, it was time to flee. Daddy packed my mother, brother and me into the ‘36 Ford and followed a winding two-track road to my grandmother’s house. The wind swished pines back and forth across the front of the car. At one point, a pine was down across the road, but Daddy found a way around it in the woods. Obviously, we made it. I remember it well and listen intently to news about hurricanes with more than casual interest.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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