Through years of experience helping farmers through scorching summer drought, most, if not all, Extension row-crop professionals would express an unqualified preference for rainy weather over prolonged dry weather.
Despite all this rain, they still do, even while conceding that this year’s overabundance of moisture has challenged their patience.
William Birdsong, an Extension crops specialist in southeast Alabama and one gifted raconteur among many in the Alabama Cooperative Extension System Crops Team, says this crop season so far has been a lot like paddling furiously to shore in a leaky rowboat with only coffee cups to bail out the water.
One of the Most Unique Crop Seasons on Record
“I’ve seen a lot of crop seasons in my time, but this is one of the more challenging ones,” Birdsong says. “It’s as if everyone is trying to bail out their fields with a coffee cup as the rains keep coming down.”
Growers have not been treated with a long enough stretch of dryness to plant or, in cases where the crop already has been planted, to deal with weeds, insects or, in an increasing number of cases, fungal diseases associated with the excessive moisture.
The past few weeks have marked the second major bout with excessive rainfall in the Wiregrass. In June, rainy weather delayed planting in the region for as long as 10 days in some instances.
Then, adding insult to injury, much of the moisture dried out after farmers finally made it back into their fields.
“It was dry for about two or three weeks — none of the planting rains,” Birdsong recalls. “Once you’ve got seeds in the ground, you want them to germinate and to be pushed along by the rain.
“That didn’t happen — it got dry as a bone.”
That forced farmers with irrigation systems to begin running their systems at full throttle.
“We had two whole weeks of solid irrigation — not one hour lost for 16 days.”
Then Mother Nature turned the tables again: The rainfall returned.
“We had windows of only two or three days to plant and then it would rain again for two or three days, “Birdsong says. “It was like that the whole month of June.”
Nearing a Make-or-Break Situation
That’s been the case for much of the rest of the state. Some of Birdsong’s Extension colleagues have even begun to wonder if they’re approaching a make-or-break situation.
“The 2013 crop is just an open question now,” says Kim Wilkins, an Extension regional agent in southwest Alabama."
One of the biggest contributing factors is saturation, according to Wilkins. Farmers simply can’t get into a field that is waterlogged.
Much like the Wiregrass, Gulf Coast producers are hoping for a respite of at least a few days to allow the soils to dry out. Yet, in some parts of the region that’s not happening. As in much of the rest of the state, farmers can’t get into the fields to undertake critical tasks.
Some producers would just like to plant. Indeed, while cotton has reached knee or even taller in some fields, a few farmers are still waiting to get soybeans into the ground. In other fields, wheat remains to be harvested.
Up the road in west Alabama, Regional Agent Rudy Yates has already begun receiving reports of moisture-related issues in crops — white mold and leaf spot in soybeans, for example.
Crop fields in Linden and Uniontown have been among the most affected by the excessive rainfall.
“Once the ground is filled to capacity, you’re not going anywhere — the crops drown.”
Like his other Extension colleagues, Yates has seen plenty of drought within his career — plants wilted, and cropland parched so badly one could stick an arm into the cracks.
After all those dry years, he never thought he would be apprehensive about moisture, but this crop season has challenged this mindset.
Like so many others throughout the state, he’s hoping for a dry stretch, the kind that usually comes in July and that lasts long enough to allow farmers to catch up.
“We’re due for a shift, but no one wants the moisture to shut off completely either,” Yates says. “A week of dryness and then a rain would be ideal.”
Dogged Optimism in the Tennessee Valley
If there is one Extension row crops expert who deserves the titled dogged optimist, it’s Charles Burmester, a regional Extension specialist in the Tennessee Valley.
Some regions of the Valley have gotten excessive rain, some not as much — the reason why Burmester says conditions in this region of the state can’t be presented in a broad stroke.
“We got 8 inches of rain in the central and eastern parts of the Valley, but about 1 to 1 ½ inches in the western part, which was about perfect,” Burmester says.
Underscoring the mixed bag so far, he says the wheat that already has been harvested has been at record levels.
On the other hand, cotton has gotten so tall in some cases that it also requires growth regulator applications.
Despite all of this, Burmester anticipates an exceptionally good corn harvest in the Valley. Likewise, soybeans are faring well in most of the region.
“You really have so much good and so much bad that it’s really hard to balance it out,” Burmester says.
If weather cooperates adequately from this point forward, he says there is reason to believe 2013 will be remembered as a good crop year in the Valley.