Any discussion of the factors that farmers cannot control must include the weather, and that was the case at the recent Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City, Fla., where climatologist David Zierden made predictions for the remainder of the year.

“I don’t have to tell anyone here how dry it has been in the Southeast after two years of La Niña,” said Zierden, who is with the Florida State University Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.

“The epicenter of the drought here has been in central and southwest Georgia into Alabama.”

Comparatively speaking, Florida is in good shape, he says, having been hit this year by two tropical storms that were not anticipated.

The most recent one — Debby — dumped as much as 15 to 28 inches of rain in parts of the state, including the Panhandle region.

Looking at an analysis of rainfall from Tropical Storm Debby, it was a real “drought buster” for Florida, says Zierden.

However, some parts of the peanut growing region missed out on the benefits of the storm, he adds, including south Alabama and south and central Georgia.

“The Midwest is suffering now because drought is developing there, but we’ve been dealing with it in the Southeast for two years now,” says Zierden.

Much of central and south Alabama and Georgia have rainfall deficits of several inches over the past 30 days and deficits of 12 to 14 inches over the past 180 days, which is nearly half of normal rainfall.

So what can Southeastern farmers anticipate after two years of La Niña?

Things appear to be changing

“Things appear to be changing now in the Pacific Ocean,” says Zierden. “Now we’re starting to see warmer water extending from South America at along the Equator. This could be signaling the beginning of an El Niño, which would be great news, leading to more fall and winter rainfall.”

El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, as opposed to La Niña, which characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific.

El Niño is an oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific having important consequences for weather around the globe. Among these consequences is increased rainfall in the southern tier of the United States.

“Some of the forecasting centers throughout the world are putting the likelihood of a full El Niño developing and lasting through the winter at 50 to 60 percent. That’s good news, but it’s not a sure thing yet. We have to wait and see what happens in the Pacific Ocean.”

There’s not a lot of predictability of rainfall patterns during the summer months, says Zierden.

“The weatherman does a pretty good job telling you what the rainfall chances are in five to seven days, but there just isn’t a lot of predictability when we talk about 30 days and longer.

“But looking out three months, our best predictions show a little wetness in Florida and the Southeast, predicting the onset of El Niño.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor for the last week of July, a strong upper-level ridge of high pressure continued to dominate the nation’s weather, bringing well above-normal temperatures to much of the country east of the Rockies. 

Late-July USDA reports indicated that 55 percent of the nation’s pasture and rangeland was in poor to very poor condition.

In the Plains and Midwest states, crop losses mounted, ranchers liquidated herds, and trees continued to drop leaves and branches.

On July 25, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack designated 76 additional counties in six states as drought disaster areas, bringing the total for the 2012 crop year to 1,369 counties across 31 states.

Abnormally dry and drought conditions worsened in southern and northeastern Florida, the Florida Panhandle, the southern coast of North Carolina and parts of Alabama and Georgia.

phollis@farmpress.com