If you live long enough, you're likely to see anything at least twice, regardless of how unusual or extraordinary. There are very few truly “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences, and for the most part, that's probably a good thing, especially in the case of 100-year droughts.
You couldn't go to a field day or a farm tour anywhere in the lower Southeast this past summer without hearing comparisons between the drought of 2007 and the one of 1954, or of 1951. The numbers are still being tallied, so we don't know for sure yet if this drought will go down in history as the “worst ever.” In Alabama — where exceptional drought conditions have persisted for months — it's a pretty good chance.
For the farmer whose corn burned up in the field or whose cotton or peanuts never made a decent stand, comparisons mean little at this point. But for the sake of history, and perhaps to help predict the future frequency of droughts, it's helpful to take make such comparisons.
John Beasley, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist, said during the state's recent peanut tour that everyone who was around at the time says the current drought is worse than the one in 1954. To answer the question of which was worst, one of Georgia's Experiment Station scientists started pulling together some numbers. He looked at October of 1953 to May or June of 1954 and compared that to October of 2006 to June of 2007.
“We had slightly more rain in 2007 than in 1954,” says Beasley. “But if you go back to the fall of 2006 compared to the fall of 1953, we were definitely drier this year because of a much drier fall. If you go back to this time last year, we had a wet August and September after a very dry 2006. Some of our Extension agents were putting together drought meetings in May so growers could consider their options on peanuts and cotton, deciding whether or not to plant based on crop insurance,” says Beasley.
Dry conditions were prevalent during the 2006-07 winter months, a time during which Georgia expects to receive more than 4 inches of rain per month to recharge surface and subsurface water supplies, says Beasley. “The soil was dry all the way down to 12 inches and deeper, making land preparation, herbicide incorporation and planting extremely difficult to impossible,” he says. “Producers with irrigation had the option of watering the soil for planting, seed germination and plant emergence, but it was a costly option at more than $12 per ace-inch to irrigate.”
Extreme heat during August only added to the drought woes. In Bainbridge in southwest Georgia, maximum temperatures of higher than 90 degrees were recorded for the entire month of August. This has occurred only two times previously — in 1954 and 1990.
And Alabama, of course, has been the epicenter of this year's drought — an honor the state's farmers would just as soon not have had. During a crops tour in east Alabama in late August, Auburn University Extension Entomologist Ron Smith was asked to give his assessment of the current cotton insect situation. He simply shook his head and said there were bigger issues to talk about than insects, namely how to survive this year's drought.
According to the state's Cooperative Extension System, Alabama suffered through four consecutive years of severe drought in the 1950s. And in 1951, the state's Extension director — P.O. Davis — was calling the frequent droughts one of the “new and bigger challenges” that had arisen at the time.
And Davis offered up a few suggestions for helping to prevent or at least minimize the catastrophe brought about by prolonged drought, telling farmers to “irrigate, irrigate, irrigate,” if the money was available.
“More farmers are irrigating; and those who are doing it have found it is expensive, but it often pays for itself in a year or two years,” said Davis, speaking three years later at the Association of County Commissioners and Probate Judges in Mobile on Aug. 26, 1954.
“With an irrigation system a farmer is not at the mercy of droughts,” said Davis. “When he plants he can be much more certain as to production. He can fertilize and do other things with more assurance as to water and returns.”
But he also told farmers to consider making dams and doing other things essential to impounding water in lakes and ponds for irrigation, fish and other uses. Growers, he said, should “grow cover crops, add humus and do other things that are feasible in increasing the water-holding capacity of your soil.”
Decades later, the message is the same but little has been done. Policymakers are discussing such things as government funding for constructing off-stream reservoirs, but there's a lack of urgency that a year like 2007 should require.