Spotty rains have left farmers in the upper Southeast feeling like a starving man at mealtime: If more doesn't come, it's not going to do much good. In mid-July, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley requested that the federal government designate 54 counties as disaster areas due to the drought. Like much of the upper Southeast, North Carolina continues in a four-year drought. The disaster designation is the first step toward making federal Emergency Credit Loans, as well as the federal Livestock Assistance Program, available to farmers in the affected counties.

It's still too early to tell the damage the dry weather has done. Preliminary estimates exceed $170. Tucked in with the damage, however, are glimmers of hope in the July crop report: Some crops in North Carolina, especially peaches and wheat, got rain at the right time.

Dry weather, however, hit the corn crop extremely hard this season. Farmers are looking at losing more than 60 percent of the corn in North Carolina. Soybeans are also suffering and tobacco yields could be off 10 to 15 percent.

“Many of our counties have experienced losses as high as 75 to 80 percent on some crops,” Easley said while touring Fred Kirk's farm in Knightdale, N.C., just outside of Raleigh. “Our farmers are hurting and need our help.”

Pastures have been particularly hard hit by the drought, prompting North Carolina Ag Commissioner Meg Phipps to activate the Hay Alert Web site. “Pastures have dried up, hay production in these (drought-stricken) areas has been severely affected, a number of farmers are already having to sell livestock or buy hay to feed their animals, and available hay supplies are rapidly diminishing.” Pastures in North Carolina were rated 28 percent very poor, 34 percent poor, and 31 percent fair in early July.

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Hay Alert Web site is located at www.ncagr.com/HayAlert/. Farmers can post a hay for sale or hay needed advertisement on the site by filling out the required information. Producers who do not have a computer can call the Statistics Division at 1-888-316-8451 Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. An operator will take down a caller's information and add it to the Website. Buyer and sellers must work out the details of all transactions.

The most severe drought in North Carolina is occurring in the Piedmont region. However, areas to the east and west of the Piedmont are also suffering the parched punishment of the drought.

Overall, chronic conditions exist throughout North Carolina. Thunderstorms the first full week of July helped conditions, but soil moisture levels remain at low levels. Thirty percent of the state has very short soil moisture levels; 42 percent has short supplies of soil moisture; 28 adequate; and none has a surplus of soil moisture.

Agriculture isn't the only industry being affected. It gets right down to the water supply for the public, as many towns and cities in the state have mandated water restrictions as the drought dries up water supplies.

On a tour of Elaine Fryar's farm in Guilford County, N.C., Easley called for communities in the most severely impacted areas of the state to impose mandatory water restrictions.

Out in the field, tobacco has also been hurt, but an estimated carryover of 75 million pounds of production from last year may not mean a drop in the amount sold, says David Smith, North Carolina State University tobacco specialist. The July 1 crop report pegged flue-cured tobacco production at 2,128 pounds per acre, off 299 pounds from last year. Tobacco growers have been facing increased incidence of tomato spotted wilt virus as well this year.

Wheat and peaches in North Carolina represent bright spots in the middle of the drought.

Wheat production in the Tar Heel state increased to 21 million bushels, up 15 percent from last year. The increase is due to the lack of a cold snap in the spring and an extended period of dry weather — the same that is causing problems for other crops — during crop maturity. Farmers expect to average 44 bushels per acre.

The North Carolina peach crop is forecast at 20 million pounds, up 67 percent from last year, when a freeze damaged the crop. The South Carolina peach crop is up 80 percent from last year.