After a wet early summer, rainfall totals have remained above average in parts of Bulloch County, with a lot of cloudy days. But the season now looks promising for major crops such as cotton and peanuts and the farmers who grow them.
Prices farmers can expect to get for their crops are also good right now, especially in comparison to last year. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of challenges, such as big increases in costs of inputs such as fertilizer and diesel fuel, shortages of labor, and the lingering uncertainty of weather.
“The rain’s been almost too much at times, but the rain has been good,” said Brooklet-area farmer Lee Cromley. “It’s been good rain, because, you know, dry seasons are different than wet seasons, and I’d take a wet season over a dry season any year.”
He and his brother Charlie are tending about 1,800 acres of cotton and 900 acres of peanuts this year.
Their two crops of choice are also Bulloch County’s two biggest row crops. In the Farm Gate Value Report compiled by the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development for 2019 and published a year later, Bulloch County had the sixth-largest cotton crop among Georgia’s counties, with 49,350 acres turning out $32.9 million worth at farm prices. That year Bulloch was the state’s 14th-ranked peanut producing county, with 21,144 acres estimated to have brought growers almost $16.9 million before expenses.
No report is available yet for 2020, let alone 2021.
“Every year is different,” Lee Cromley said. “We were dry early, trying to plant, and then it got too wet to plant. We’ve got a really late crop, probably some of the latest cotton we’ve ever had.”
Part of their cotton had been planted before those dry and wet spells. But they didn’t finish planting the rest until about June 15, two to three weeks later than he would have liked.
“So we’re going to need a late frost and warm fall to really allow that late cotton to reach its maximum potential,” Cromley said, “and that could very well happen. We’ve got a good chance to make a crop still on the late cotton.”
Gauging the rain
How much has it rained, and when?
“Well, kind of like we always say, it’s all according to where you’re standing,” said Bill Tyson, Bulloch County agent with the University of Georgia Extension. “We’ve had more than enough rain in places, but we’ve got parts of the county where for several weeks we were having to irrigate, while in other places we haven’t had to turn the irrigation on since it was planted.”
A National Weather Service rain gauge maintained by a different Cromley, Lee’s cousin Hal, on a farm near Brooklet shows both that the summer months have been relatively wet there and that May was much drier.
The rainfall amounts were 1.63 inches the whole month of May, but 8.89 inches in June and 6.65 inches in July. Last year, the same gauge recorded 3.97 inches of rain in May, 4.86 inches in June and 3.69 inches in July.
So, the total rainfall for those three months this year was 17.17 inches. Last year it was 12.52 inches. But May through July 2019, with 16.53 inches, was only a little drier, and May through July 2018, with 24.45 inches, even wetter than the same three months this year.
This August, with five days to go, the gauge had caught 5.27 inches of rain.
Lee Cromley was one of those farmers who haven’t really needed to use their irrigation systems.
“One time we turned on the pivots, on a Friday afternoon, and it rained about three hours after I got them all started,” he said. “So we haven’t run the pivots at all this year. … That’s not just a cost saving but a time-saving thing, not running those pivots from a cost and a labor standpoint.”
But a wet season creates problems of its own. Misty rain and lingering cloudy days present ideal conditions for fungal diseases, particularly white mold and leaf spot, to which peanut plants are susceptible, Tyson said. Cromley noted that he has had to apply more fungicide to combat white mold, at added expense.
Cotton plants in some fields also appear to have shed some of their “fruit,” meaning blooms and bolls, as cloud cover interferes with photosynthesis, he said. Still, Cromley remains “cautiously optimistic” for good, but not record, yields and said he has “high hopes” for a profitable year.
Greg Sikes, who owns one of Bulloch County’s most spread out row crop farming operations, has witnessed how varied the rainfall has been. He and his employees tend a little over 6,000 acres of mostly leased fields at various locations around the eastern half of the county. This year he has 3,500 acres of cotton and 2,300 acres of peanuts and recently harvested 300 acres of corn.
“We’ve had some areas that are borderline not having enough rain,” Sikes said, referring especially to fields around Stilson and near Shearouse Landing on the Ogeechee River.
But overall, in those areas that have needed consistent irrigation and others that have not, his crops look very promising.
“Everything looks really good,” Sikes said Thursday. “The peanuts look good; the cotton looks good. We’ll need a few showers here in the next week to help finish everything out. We’ll start having to irrigate again this weekend if it doesn’t rain before the weekend is out.”
Bulloch County’s peanut harvest will probably begin about two weeks from now, in mid-September, and the earliest cotton will probably be picked in late September or even October, Tyson said. So nobody has yield numbers yet for those crops.
But the corn harvest has begun. Sikes, who grows some of his corn under irrigation and some without it, said it averaged a little over 200 bushels an acre on the irrigated portion. That is a typical good yield for irrigated corn. But his dryland corn averaged about 140 bushels an acre, and corn, being especially susceptible to drought, seldom does that well without irrigation.
Meanwhile, corn is bringing farmers about $5.50 cents a bushel. Sikes said he has peanut contracts ranging around $500 a ton, and cotton prices are topping 90 cents a pound. All of those are very good prices in comparisons with recent years. After the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in spring 2020, cotton prices fell below 60 cents before recovering some by the end of the year.
But the pandemic and economic factors have also driven up costs of farmers’ supplies. For example, nitrogen fertilizer, which Sikes paid $185 a ton for last year, now costs more than $300 a ton, an increase of roughly 60%. Diesel fuel prices have risen 40% from their lowest point last fall, according to the monthly price history on the U.S. Energy Information Administration website.
Still, Sikes thinks this can be a profitable year for farmers, if they can get their crops to market without added difficulties. He and three partners own Candler Peanut, with buying points in Metter and Nevils that receive peanuts from growers.
“Finding help is starting to be a big challenge,” Sikes said. Recovering from COVID this week himself, he said that people getting sick is contributing to a labor shortage.
“If we can finish out this crop and get it out of the field and get it delivered and processed, I think it will be (a profitable year),” Sikes said. “There’s a lot of obstacles we’ve got to jump through.”