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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
Seasons on the farm kindle hope or despair
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

Some people divide their years by seasons as well as months. Some sports fans arrange their lives around seasons — as in football, basketball, baseball — and are only slightly confused when these sports overlap by a few weeks.

Farmers are deeply affected by seasons, especially planting and harvest. In the past, there was a cultivating season that required intensive labor involving tractor- or mule-drawn plows and people-powered hoes to control weeds and grass. In this era of herbicides, follow-up applications are sometimes needed during the growing season but no plows or hoes.

It is planting season, a time when farmers greet their world with hope. Without an ever rekindling hope for a good harvest, no one would farm. Bountiful outpourings of grain, fruit or fiber gladden the hearts of tillers of the soil and perhaps assure that they will hold on to their land and repeat the cycle next year.

Yet, within the deep recesses of farmers’ minds, there is apprehension even at the start of planting season. There are many obstacles between planting and harvest and one might lead to failure.

Some years present special challenges. This is the year of a petroleum crisis. Caused — at least in part — by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the petroleum shortage has driven up the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel dramatically. Farmers’ trucks, tractors, combines, sprayers, etc., use a lot of fuel. Other products also have been affected by such factors as the rising cost of transportation. Delivery of necessary equipment and supplies has become undependable.

Weather, whether favorable or unfavorable, is the chief determinant of success or failure. Some “cold snaps” in 2022 have already damaged fruit and berry crops heavily and punished those who planted early. Some years ago when markets were open for only a limited period, which mostly affected tobacco, farmers tried to get crops planted as soon as possible. Marketing is more flexible now.

Water is crucial for all growing things and that really means rainfall. For planting, the soil needs to be moist but not wet or dry. Shortly afterwards, a good rain — not too heavy — and some warming sunshine are needed to promote germination and growth. Both the amount and timing of these are tight-rope tricky.

Thereafter, dependably regular rainfall is required for a successful harvest. Rain does not fall dependably. It comes too little or too late or too much at times. I have watched my farmer father pace his yard at night searching the sky for lightning that might promise a rain cloud. I have joined farmers gathered at a church to pray for rain as their corn twisted in the fields, holding on to a ray of hope in a dark hour of despair.

The introduction of farm irrigation lessened farmers’ vulnerability to drought. The earliest types drew water from ponds or streams through pipes to sprinklers. They required much labor and were limited in the amount of water available. Therefore, only the most economically critical of crops were irrigated.

The breakthrough innovation was to sink large capacity wells into the aquifer that lies deep under underground. Like a hidden sea of fresh water, it is a vast resource, providing water for cities, towns, rural homes and golf courses everywhere in this state and others. Aquifers are not unlimited. One in the West has been pumped dry for use in agriculture. A product of the last ice age, it has no source of replenishment.

Much of Georgia and Florida is served by the Floridian Aquifer, which depends upon rainfall in northern Georgia to be recharged. As that area has been paved over for highways and urban sprawl, less rainfall penetrates the soil to enter the aquifer. But this is not the main reason why the water level is falling, and it is falling.

Crop irrigation is the major source of aquifer depletion. Of course, over-watering of lawns, careless waste of water in homes and keeping golf courses lush are some of the other things that contribute to the problem. However, a study found that a South Georgia farmer used more water to irrigate peanuts on his farm than was used by a nearby small city in a year. I personally know of a case where rural families had to cover the cost of new pumps and pipes for their deep-wells because a local farmer had withdrawn so much water from the aquifer that their submersible pumps no longer reached the water. Believe me, it was expensive. Artesian wells and springs that flowed free have gone dry.

Irrigation as a permanent solution to the lack of rainfall will end. As pressure in the aquifer falls, salt water will intrude inland to water supplies of coastal cities. Savannah, Brunswick and Jacksonville, with their ports, are major economic engines. They will get action to save their water. Kings Bay Naval Base, bastion of national defense, will draw federal attention. These examples just scratch the surface.

Farmers will face water allocation with meters to measure usage on every well. They will not throw up their hands in surrender. They will be more judicious in how much they use and do more with much less. They will move away from such “thirsty” crops as sweet onions and choose new ones or find more drought-tolerant varieties of those they typically plant. Citrus fruits and olives are already being grown successfully. Farmers will find a way, as they have for millennia.

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

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