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After drought, bad timing of heavy rains hurts harvests in the South
Farmer: 'Sometimes it feels like we're getting ganged up on'
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The heavy rains unleashed by Tropical Storm Helene couldn't come at a worse time for farmers in the southeastern United States, who were finally ready to harvest after enduring a drought-stricken summer.
Lots of rain is the last thing farmers need during harvest.
"It's not a very good time to have this amount of rain in our state," Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin told CNN.com. "We needed some of this rain spread out in July and August, but you usually don't get it when you need it."
Billy Griggs, a farmer of peanuts and cotton in south-central Georgia, echoed those sentiments.
"We just couldn't get any rain from April to almost the middle of September, and now we're at harvesting time ... and it's raining," said Griggs, who has farmed for 31 years. "Sometimes it feels like we're getting ganged up on."
Georgia is the No. 1 producer of peanuts in the nation, producing roughly 38 percent of the nation's crop. The state also ranks third in cotton production.
Farmers need dry conditions for the best crop yield, and large amounts of rain disrupt the harvesting process. At worst, peanut vines can get so damaged that the peanuts can't be picked. Too much rain on cotton during harvest can hurt crop quality or knock the cotton off the plants, making it unusable.
"You get too much rain during harvest time and it can drown you," said commissioner Irvin. "A lot of people don't realize how devastating lots of rain can be until it happens."
Roy Baxley, president of the Southern Cotton Growers Inc., a regional organization that represents farmers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, said the Southeastern U.S. cotton crop had been on schedule to produce well until the last week or so.
The Carolinas had a good crop until a tropical storm moved through in recent days and now forecasters predict Helene's remnants will soak the region. "These two tropical storms I think are going to put a damper on (our crops)," said Baxley, a cotton farmer in South Carolina. "As of tonight, we will have seen our second tropical storm in a week. It's going to hurt us yield-wise and quality-wise."
He said cotton growers in drought-stricken regions of Alabama, Florida and Georgia would have the toughest time coping with Helene's rains. "It's kind of like you have a minor catastrophe," Baxley said, "and then all of a sudden something comes along and blindsides you."
Forecasters predict that Helene could dump between 3-5 inches of rain within the next 24 hours as the storm weakens and moves across Georgia toward the Carolinas.
South Georgia is expected to get hit hardest, with rainfall possibly exceeding 5 inches in some regions.
Much of Georgia, the Florida Panhandle and parts of Alabama had gone through summer with little rain -- a time when farmers most need relief.
"This is probably a mixed blessing for many low-crop farmers," said David Stooksbury, a state climatologist and professor of engineering at the University of Georgia. "They'd actually prefer it to be dry because they can't harvest when it's raining. ... It's really just too late. They needed this type of rainfall back in July."
Stooksbury said the good news is that if Georgia continues to get decent rains through the fall, farmers should have above normal topsoil moisture conditions for spring planting season. If that happens, Stooksbury said, farmers won't be planting "in dust" like they have the past two years.
Farmers and agriculture officials, however, are most concerned about the next few days.
"We're going to have to wait and see this thing clear out to see what kind of damage we have," said Marcus Evans, the director of field services for the Georgia Peanut Commission.
Georgia farmer John Noble said, "I wish I could paint a rosy picture for you, but that's not in the cards this year.
"Other than praying about it, that's about all we can do to control the weather," said Noble, who has farmed since 1964. "Like I said, we become accustomed to taking it as it comes -- not necessarily liking it."
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National Weather Service