Ongoing drought creates challenges for farmers planting winter crops

HARVEST, Ala. - Farmers will tell you: there are good years and bad years, but there are often more bad years than good years.

What is already a very tough job has become nearly impossible this year due to the ongoing drought.

As of mid-November, 90 percent of Alabama is considered to be in severe drought. Much of north Alabama would need between 10 and 15 inches of rain to end the drought, according to Alabama State Climatologist Dr. John Christy.

The current drought began in the spring and has become the worst drought Alabama has seen in a decade. A drier-than-normal growing season affected some crops, while others, like cotton, flourished.

The growing season for Alabama's main cash crops has ended, but farmers are now facing a new challenge. The drought is forcing some farmers to go without planting their winter crops.

"Farmers cannot get [wheat] in the ground because we simply do not have the rain," said Lawrence County Extension Coordinator Josh Melson. "There are several farmers that are simply not going to risk [planting] it. They are going to have to send their wheat orders back."

A combine harvester gathers wheat in fields at the start of harvesting on August 9, 2010 in Chebsey near Stafford, United Kingdom (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A combine harvester gathers wheat in fields at the start of harvesting on August 9, 2010 in Chebsey near Stafford, United Kingdom (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Crops planted in the winter play a crucial role in maintaining the health and quality of the soil for the following spring's crops. With no winter crops in the ground, the soil becomes extremely vulnerable.

"[Wheat] does a lot of good things for the soil," said Jake McNeal, with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Office. "[Wheat] retains soil moisture [and] mines soil nutrients. It keeps [nutrients] in the topsoil so that [they do not] leach out during the winter."

Farmers that took the gamble on planting winter crops are hoping beneficial rain returns soon. "We would love to see an inch of rain per week for the next three, four, or five months," said Melson. Farmers need the rain to come over an extended period and not all at once, because a very heavy rain could damage the topsoil.

When asked how the farmers are handling the drought, Melson said, "The biggest thing right now is they are praying. They are praying. They are putting their faith [in the fact] that it is going to rain sometime."