Frost, high fuel prices, drought; Ga. farmers fear for crops

OMEGA, Ga. (AP) — The sky above Randy Scarbor’s cantaloupe fields was overcast last week, but the clouds were from the massive wildfires to the east. No rain was forecast on the last day of May, a month that set records for dry conditions across Georgia.

The ripe cantaloupes are about half the size they should be. And for every 50 acres of cantaloupes it costs Scarbor more than $600 every two days to provide the bare minimum of water they need not to wither in the oppressive heat. ‘‘This is critical,’’ said Scarbor, who farms about 350 acres in southern Georgia. ‘‘We’re going to suffer severe damages, lose maybe half, two-thirds of the crops.’’

Across the main crop-producing regions of Georgia, the most severe drought in decades — on the heels of the early April frost — is damaging crops and cutting even deeper into farmers’ pockets because of the high price of fuel to operate irrigation systems.

‘‘We had the late freeze, and right behind it the early drought,’’ said state agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, the longest-serving state farming chief in the nation. ‘‘It’s the two most disastrous things you can have.’’

Irvin estimated Monday that the losses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars for state farmers, growers and cattlemen.

And the soil is so parched that farmers are having a hard time planting cotton and peanuts by the deadlines to get insurance coverage.

‘‘We can’t get plows in the ground because it’s so dry,’’ Scarbor said.

Agriculture is a $50 billion industry in Georgia and losing large parts of the crops could cripple the economy in farm communities. On Monday, state climatologist David Stooksbury classified 95 of the state’s 159 counties as being in ‘‘extreme’’ drought, a condition that weather experts expect to see only once every 50 years. The other counties are in severe to mild drought. Water restrictions for noncommercial use are in effect across the state.

Tropical weather brought some relief to parts of Georgia Saturday — up to five inches in some areas — and could help reduce the massive shortfall of hay, Stooksbury said.

The rainfall is also giving a last-gasp chance to get peanuts planted. Little more than 50 percent of that crop was planted by May 27, said Nathan Smith, a University of Georgia Extension peanut economist.

‘‘It’s a $100 million rain,’’ Smith said, meaning that crops expected to be planted thanks to the storm should bring in that much money.

But several thousand acres won’t be planted, which could drive up prices, he added. The storm also missed many crop-producing western counties, where the rain deficits are still more than 10 inches.

In Tifton, a few miles from the Scarbor fields, a network of water drips is keeping 4,000 acres of produce — from bell peppers to eggplants — flourishing on Lewis Taylor Farms, one of the state’s most successful vegetable farms. Still, co-owner Bill Brim said farmers must constantly avert disaster amid the continued lack of rain that has overtaxed his water wells.

‘‘We could go two days without the drip and we’d be done,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s like a desert.’’

In central Georgia, growers who lost as much as 80 percent of their peach crop to the Easter weekend frost are now straining to irrigate the fruit-laden plants and the pecan trees that are in a critical growing stage, said Duke Lane Jr., president of Lane Packing Co. of Fort Valley, one of the state’s major producers.

‘‘We’re struggling along,’’ Lane said. The company, which has 2,300 acres of peach trees, expects less than a fourth of its normal crop this year.

The overall losses for peach growers in the Peach State are around $30 million to $40 million, Lane said. Because of the lack of water, the peaches are golf-ball size, not the normal baseball size.

And although fruits and vegetables are likely to be more expensive, there may be one dubious silver lining for consumers: Increased sugar concentration in fruits makes them sweeter and more flavorful.