Cropped out: Drought hits hard for local farmers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Phillip Barber is searching for answers.

Like many farmers in Shelby County, the cotton and corn farmer from Harpersville is trying to find a way to keep the few crops he has left alive despite the lack of sufficient rain and extreme heat.

&8220;Every farmer has been at wits end, and right now we just don&8217;t know what to do,&8221; Barber said. &8220;It&8217;s tried us all this year.&8221;

Barber said of his 600 acres of farmland he will likely lose 50 percent of his cotton crop and as much as 80 percent of his corn crop due to the drought.

&8220;We still got a chance to make a little cotton,&8221; he said. &8220;The corn has suffered more than that, however. We&8217;re looking at a disaster in the corn industry.&8221;

The plight Barber faces this summer is playing out all across the county.

Shelby County extension coordinator Ricky Colquitt said damages from the drought could range anywhere from 50 to 90 percent for most local farmers.

Losses will not be able to be calculated, Colquitt said, until late this year or early 2007.

&8220;We will not know the extent of the damages until we harvest these crops,&8221; he said. &8220;But we already know it&8217;s going to be severe.&8221;

Barber said he will be able to judge the damage early than December.

&8220;We&8217;ll start knowing in October,&8221; he said. &8220;As soon as we run a cotton picker through it we&8217;ll know how we&8217;re looking. Normally it&8217;s waste high and this year it&8217;s only knee high.&8221;

Too hot, too early

Colquitt said many farmers fear the heat will only get worse before it gets better.

&8220;Farmers I&8217;ve talked to say that while they&8217;ve seen it dryer than this before, they&8217;ve never seen it this dry, this early in the season.&8221;

Colquitt said historically Alabama&8217;s hottest months are September and October.

&8220;We&8217;re just now getting to the driest part of the season.&8221;

Barber said this drought is the worst he has seen in over a decade.

&8220;It was a little more severe in 1995. But this is a close second.&8221;

Little comfort in crop insurance

Barber said that while he has crop insurance, the payout he will receive will not cover all of his losses.

&8220;We all carry crop insurance, but crop insurance doesn&8217;t pay the bills,&8221; he said.

&8220;It only keeps you from losing everything. If I bought what I really needed in insurance, it would bankrupt me.&8221;

Colquitt admits that a lack of insurance adjusters in Alabama and the large amount of claims could put farmers into a bind.

&8220;It&8217;s a unique situation,&8221; he said. &8220;The insurance companies oftentimes want these farmers to work the crops until they&8217;re harvested and then count the losses. They&8217;re having to decide how much more they&8217;ll invest into lost crops.&8221;

The rain is too late

While thunderstorms have dumped a substantial amount of rain on some areas of the county, both Colquitt and Barber agree that it may be too little, too late.

&8220;They call for 50 or 60 percent chance of rain and it will never rain here,&8221; Barber said. &8220;Now that it has started raining it&8217;s little help to me in most places.&8221;

Barber has already had to cancel a contract with a feed mill he supplies corn for.

&8220;I had to cancel the contract last week because I couldn&8217;t fill the order,&8221; he said. &8220;Thankfully I was able to get out of it without losing any money.&8221;

Irrigation is not an option for farmers in Shelby County, with many unable to afford the costs.

&8220;I wish I could irrigate. But I don&8217;t have the means,&8221; Barber said. &8220;I don&8217;t know a farmer in this area who can afford to irrigate their crops.&8221;

Without rain and other sources of irrigation, Barber admits there isn&8217;t much farmers can do but hope for the best.

&8220;All you can do when you&8217;re farming is hope for a good year and a good yield,&8221; he said. &8220;This has been a bad one because nothing works. There&8217;s nothing you can do but sit there and watch everything burn up and wish you had water.&8221;