There is a field just across the street from my house, part of a much larger farm that is only a short distance from Georgia Southern. It was in sight of the courthouse if the view wasn't blocked by several acres of tall woodland.
Normally it is comforting to this country boy raised with the smell of corn tassel in his nose. I see whatever is growing there the moment I walk out of my house.
This year things are different. There is a corn patch planted at just the right time in this year of up-and-down seasons — a winter cold day followed by a day or so too hot for spring. The farmer timed his planting right and his corn came up and grew off quickly. It was green, the well-fertilized with nitrogen sort of green.
Each day I walk out and gaze on its greenness with a farmer boy’s appreciation. It takes me back to growing up days on the Toombs County farm.
The weather turned, no more up-and-down. Suddenly it was summer, hot and dry. The lush, green corn in the field bundled its leaves against the stress. Then bundles became twists, the sign of deep distress. Someone else’s corn, of course, but dying, and that took me back to the farm where crop failure ripped the hearts out of farmers, threatening their very lives and fortunes.
My parents, Oscar and Juanita Branch — like most other farmers — lived close to the edge financially, bracing against potential shortages with gardens, milk cows, hogs for the slaughter, fish from the streams and game from field and forest. But no matter how hard they worked, there was no protection from drought, the killer of dreams.
Dry-land farming — as all farming was because crop irrigation was a recent innovation — depended upon rain, not just any rain but rain at the right time in the growing season. A late cold, wet spell might delay planting, cultivation and harvest, but there was no terror like hot and dry.
Oscar. I have watched him pacing out on the porch, looking for the distant flicker of lightning that could mean rain on the way. If it did not come soon, his crops would fail, taking some of him, too.
Drought was a shared disaster, sparing no farmer. There are stories of farmers gathering at a church to join in prayer for rain. Mother told of such an occasion when her father and others met to pray at Connors Church near Cobbtown. In the afternoon a small cloud appeared in the west followed by rain that lasted all night. Although the corn had been falling down in the fields, the rain saved it.
Unfortunately, praying for rain did not always bring relief. Hundreds of farmers were wiped out by severe droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is a sad story of broken marriages, bankruptcy, even suicides. It’s a people story, my people.
The drought-twisted corn pulls me into a present that looks like my past. Daddy is there mourning the loss of his sweet smelling corn — his favorite crop — and wondering if he can salvage enough to start over next spring. What a strong man!
Contemporary farmers have better resources. They have center-pivot irrigation systems for cash crops, once only tobacco but now corn and cotton. Crop failure is possible but infrequent. It is easier to obtain credit to buy these resources. For most, crop insurance is available. It does not guarantee a profit, but serves as a buffer against complete failure.
Irrigation is not a panacea. The demand for its water greatly exceeds its capacity. So, it is becoming more expensive. Do profits exceed costs? Is it sustainable over the long haul? The aquifer from which its water is taken is limited.
It must be recharged constantly with water drawn from the hills of north Georgia, which are being paved over for cities, parking lots, streets and highways. Removal of water for crops robs the aquifer “downstream.” As pressure drops, coastal residents suffer from saltwater intrusion. There will be legislation to protect their interests. Farmers will be required to limit their use of this scarce resource. Not if but when.
Farmers have been in a favorable situation with international markets. Current relations with China raise serious questions about the future. Soybean producers are already feeling the pinch. Cotton was planted in the field across the street this year. But it failed. Not a single bale was harvested. Maybe there was crop insurance to cover the loss.
When farming failed in 1970s and 1980s, every town that relied on farmers found itself in financial distress, too. Hundreds of banks failed and those who worked there lost their jobs. This crisis has not yet run its course.
It is very hot and dry this spring, which feels like summer. The corn is drying up again. So, I feel the pain of the farmers once more and find myself praying for rain.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.