The crowd of Georgia peanut shellers gasped at Joel Paz's presentation. The slides weren't gory, but the information was scary nonetheless. Peanut shellers don't want to hear the state's rain deficit will likely continue into the fall.

"The shellers are really concerned over the quantity and quality of the peanuts they'll get this year," said Paz, an agrometeorologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Each agricultural group I meet with has its own set of concerns," he said. "And lately, they center around the drought."

Paz is one of a team of scientists involved in the Southeast Climate Consortium, which tracks and predicts how the climate will affect crops and farmers in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

"A La Niña is likely to happen this fall, and if it does, we'll be in deep trouble," Paz said. "Our rainfall level is already down 20 inches in some areas of the state."

Colder-than-normal surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific and the greater extent of deeper cool water are signs that it's "as likely as not that a full La Niña will develop sometime this fall," he said.

"If a La Niña does form in the Pacific Ocean in the next few months, it's known to increase the likelihood of a warm and dry fall and winter in the Southeast," he said. "Drier-than-normal conditions this fall and winter will make things really hard for farmers who'll be harvesting peanuts in September and October."

Paz said two climate scenarios are possible for this fall and winter. If a La Niña forms in the next few months, the Southeast will likely have a warm, dry fall and winter. But if the Pacific Ocean remains in the neutral phase, the result would be rainfall and temperature patterns close to normal.

"A winter season with near-normal rainfall would go a long way toward easing drought conditions in Alabama and Georgia," Paz said.

Farmers statewide would benefit from a neutral climate phase this fall and winter. The state's extreme drought has already withered pastures to the point that farmers are desperately searching for alternatives for non-existent or low-quality hay.

"Pasture conditions have improved slightly in northeast and central Georgia," he said. "But a dry August and September could be stressful to forage crops and grazing herds."

On July 31, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 36 percent of Georgia's corn crop and 40 percent of the state's hay crop to be in "very poor to poor condition."

Summer afternoon thundershowers brought some beneficial rainfall to the Southeast. Tropical storm Barry was the first to bring relief to the drought-stricken Southeast on June 2, Paz said. Barry came ashore in the Big Bend of Florida and brought welcome, widespread rainfall to eastern and southern parts of Georgia and most of Florida.

Despite the onset of what the SECC calls the "convective rainy season," rainfall totals for the year remain below average except for in isolated areas, such as parts of central Georgia.

Rainfall in western Georgia, northern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle still lags behind. These areas remain in a drought ranging from severe to exceptional, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The southwest corner of Georgia, around Seminole and Decatur counties, has been dry, too. The drought caused an increase in late planting, and these crops will need ample rain well into September.

See complete agricultural climate predictions at the SECC Web site (www.agclimate.org).