Scattered storms and showers over the last few weeks have raised more dust than hopes for farmers in the Chattanooga region.
The U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday morning shows extreme drought in northwest Georgia, northeast Alabama and about half of Hamilton, Marion and Franklin counties in Tennessee. Georgia is driest, with the entire northern half of the state in extreme or severe drought. A new area of extreme drought bloomed in Cherokee and Forsyth counties this week.
"It's a popular topic that [farmers] don't want to talk about," said Norman Edwards, Agricultural Extension agent for Walker County, Ga. "On the Drought Monitor it seems like we're right in the middle of the bubble."
Today: A 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after 9 a.m. Partly sunny and hot, with a high near 96. Heat index values as high as 105. Calm wind becoming east around 5 mph.
Tonight: A 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms, mainly before 9 p.m. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 76. Southwest wind around 5 mph becoming calm after midnight.
Sunday: A 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms, mainly after 9 a.m. Partly sunny and hot, with a high near 96. Calm wind becoming southwest around 5 mph in the afternoon.
Sunday night: A 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms, mainly before 9 p.m. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 75.
Monday: A 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms, mainly after 9 a.m. Partly sunny and hot, with a high near 94.
Monday night: A 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 73.
Tuesday: A 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly sunny and hot, with a high near 92.
Tuesday night: A 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 73.
Wednesday: A 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly sunny and hot, with a high near 92.
Wednesday night: A 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 73.
Thursday: A 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly sunny and hot, with a high near 91.
Source: National Weather Service
And weather forecasts show there's little relief in sight: Temperatures will hover in the mid- to upper 90s over the next several days and only scattered rainfall is expected.
Tougher crops, such as cotton and soybeans, are holding their own. But the corn crop, especially in North Georgia and northeast Alabama, is gone and so is most of the hay, Edwards and other officials said. A good, brief downpour greens up what little vegetation remains alive, but a few hours later, the ground is parched and cracked again.
That means livestock suffers, too. Pastureland across the region is so sparse and dry most beef farmers are feeding hay when their cattle should be nibbling soft, green pasture.
Some of the worst-hit nearby areas of extreme drought are in Walker County and across the state line in Jackson County, Ala. Tennessee counties on the northern edge of the extreme drought zone are not doing much better.
James Burton, who has a farm a couple of miles north of Edwards' office in LaFayette, started feeding hay to his cattle more than a month ago. The 4,000 bales he harvested in spring is now down to 500 bales.
"I had to stop selling my round bales so I'd have enough for mine," Burton said. He has been forced to let his cattle graze on land ordinarily used to grow hay for harvest.
South Walker County, Ga., cattleman Donald Martin proudly points to his tall, green cornstalks bristling with ears of corn.
"That corn looks pretty good, but we put 10,000 gallons of water on those four rows," Martin, 75, said with a chuckle that came more from experience than mirth. The four rows stand in his home garden, close to the house, where he can get water to the thirsty plants.
The rest of Martin's farm — like most of the region — looks ready to spontaneously burst into flame.
"This is the driest we've been since I've been living," Martin said.
Martin said he will have to sell off some of his cattle so those he keeps remain in good health.
He is just a few miles north of wilting Gordon and Chattooga counties.
According to the USDA's Georgia crop reports for the weeks ending July 10 and July 17, Gordon County Extension Agency Greg Bowman reported that the "corn crop was gone and was basically being put in silage or baleage. No, rain, no grass. Folks were weaning calf crops early to assist the stress on cows."
Bowman said there will be no second cutting of hay for most farmers and he predicted a hay shortage.
In Jackson County, Ala., Extension Coordinator Themika Sims said his county is still at least six inches behind in rainfall, corn is a likely loss and, like Walker County, cattle operations are feeding or selling their stock.
Jackson County has shallow soil so it dries out quickly.
"We need one of those long, 2- to 3-inch rains," Sims said.
What else can farmers do when it gets this dry?
"Pray," Sims said.
"Cattle producers are feeding and they may have to wean earlier and they may have to do some selling," he said. "When it comes to corn, they probably cut that in to make silage out of it and feed it to cattle."
Corn that doesn't produce ears can be cut and stored until if ferments, making it good feed for cattle but not horses, officials said. On a positive note, Sims said soybeans and Jackson County's cotton are "in good shape."
Jackson County farmer Phillip Thompson planted his corn early but his yield is down anyway. He started feeding his cattle about two weeks ago because their grazing is gone.
"We need a hurricane," said Thompson, who raises corn, soybeans and cattle and is the president of the county's Farmers Federation. "We're all in the same boat."
The last full inch of rainfall on Thompson's farm south of Scottsboro fell in April. Since then, just a few quick showers and blazing heat.
"The heat just cooks everything," he said. Corn doesn't pollinate when it more than 95 degrees, so corn planted too late just burned up.
Marion County's corn is in the same sad shape, University of Tennessee extension agent Matthew Deist said.
"Some of our producers have already been in contact with their crop insurance providers to weigh their options," he said.
Unlike their Georgia and Alabama counterparts, though, most of Marion's beef producers have "faring well," Deist said.
"I do not believe we are quite to the level of selling off cattle, but if the drought continues and forage availability/quality drops much more it could come to that," he said, noting that hay harvesting in the spring was down about 15 percent from last year and this fall's yields are expected to be low.
In Chattanooga, the irrigation system at urban Crabtree Farms on 30th Street pulls water from deep in the earth but the drought still stresses the plants and reduces yields, Executive Director Sara McIntyre said. Crabtree Farms is a community-based sustainable farm on city land that raises a variety of vegetables and fruit.
"It hasn't really rained since April," McIntyre said. Thundershowers that drop lots of rain quickly don't soak in because the soil is "hard as a brick," she said.
Irrigation is vital to the farm's production, she said.
McIntyre said she and other farm operators hope for more moisture later this summer as fall crops like carrots, lettuces, kale, mustard and collard greens and other leafy veggies are in season.
There's still time for late-season crops to rebound but it will take lots of rainfall, she said.
Much of the Southeast and Tennessee experienced scattered rain showers this past week but amounts remained at or below normal in most areas, U.S. Drought Monitor officials say in a statement released July 19. Eastern North Carolina, parts of southwest and eastern South Carolina, the Georgia-Florida border, west central Alabama, southern Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana all experienced above normal precipitation for the seven-day period, but the majority of other areas to the north were at or below normal in terms of precipitation. Average daytime temperatures for the region were generally above normal. The most intense heat was focused in western South Carolina where anomalies were as great as 4 degrees above what is typically expected during the time period.
Warm temperatures combined with a lack of precipitation exasperated drought conditions in the region and in Georgia precipitation was 50 percent of normal or less. An area of extreme drought was introduced in Cherokee County and stretching into Bartow County, Georgia where a stream flow gauge was measuring below 2 percent. On a more positive note, one farmer reported a record watermelon harvest season.
Source: U.S. Drought Monitor
The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering help for small businesses, small agriculltural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and private nonprofit organizations in the form of low-interest loans up to $2 million. Loans are available to entities that suffered financial losses as a direct result of the drought through the U.S. Small Business Administration. There are deadlines for filing applications for help. Find out more by visiting www.sba.gov/disaster or call 800-659-2955 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tennessee counties: Bedford, Coffee, Franklin, Giles, Grundy, Lincoln, Marion, Marshall and Moore counties.
Georgia counties: Bartow, Butts, Carroll, Chattooga, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Floyd, Forsyth, Fulton, Gilmer, Gordon, Gwinnett, Haralson, Harris, Heard, Henry, Jasper, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Murray, Newton, Pauling, Pickens, Pike, Polk, Rockdale, Spalding, Talbot, Troup, Upson, Walker, Walton and Whitfield.
Alabama counties: Cherokee, Cleborne, DeKalb, Jackson, Limestone, Madison and Randolph.
Source: U.S. Small Business Administration