Nearly two months’ worth of rain came in a two-day stretch late in August in a five-county belt from Vance to Wilson counties. Much of eastern North Carolina got steady rain from a low-pressure trough also. Much of it came too late. Earlier in the summer 73 counties in North Carolina were declared drought disasters. West of Raleigh, the dry weather continued.

Throughout the 2002 growing season, rains have been spotty at best. Nothing like what happened in late August. Billy Little, Wilson County, N.C., Extension commercial horticulture agent, put it into perspective. “I had a test plot that got two-tenths of an inch of rain on Aug. 16. That was the first rain I’d had all growing season.”

Adding short-term perspective, the tobacco crop is about 60 percent harvested – the rains should help fill out the upper stalk positions as well as the tips. The rain caused soybeans in the area to put on a second bloom and may also help fill out pods. The moisture will help pastures and hay crops tremendously, Little says.

“Corn was already gone,” Little says. “On cotton, it’s still undecided whether the rain will help or hurt the crop.

“Vegetables needed water, but not that much water,” Little says. Too much rain sets up disease problems.

Drought delayed development of North Carolina’s sweet potato crop. Little wondered out loud whether the rain would help size up the crop without “souring the wet potatoes.”

Rain is news during a drought, of course. Especially the extended five-year drought we’re under here in the upper Southeast. The bigger, long-term issue, one that the lack of rain has highlighted, is water.

This summer, municipalities issued tighter water restrictions for residents. Restrictions that go beyond the normal wash your car on odd-numbered days. Some towns were thinking about forcing restaurants to use paper plates. Water supplies in one lake that supplies most Chapel Hill and Carrboro, N.C. residents were down 16.5 feet below their full levels.

Early this year, the governor of North Carolina urged residents to cut down on water use while on a tour of drought-stricken farms. I’ve been reading about the depletion of aquifers in eastern North Carolina, an area where residents once thought they had water to spare – or so the articles tell me. Rivers in the upper Southeast are under extreme pressure.

Water moves the engine of not only progress, but also of agriculture. It’s literally an issue of life and death, one in which agricultural interests in the upper Southeast should have a say.

To the south, other states have recognized the long-term importance of having agriculture represented at the table when decisions are made regarding water distribution. Farmers, individuals and organizations have taken the lead in making sure agriculture is considered along with the other vital interests of a growing state. It’s an issue agriculture will continue to face.

The rain in late-August was a welcomed respite from the drought, but certainly not enough to replenish depleted soil moisture levels. The fact that it rained is news. The only thing more important than rain, however, is water.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com