A month too late and more than a few inches short. That's an apt description of this year's rainfall situation for most peanut producers in the lower Southeast.

"We received good general rainfall over most of Georgia's peanut belt during Labor Day week," says John Baldwin, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist. "Rainfall was especially good in the Tifton area in southwest Georgia, with four to eight inches falling in some places."

But many growers are left wondering how much their crops would have benefited if the rains had arrived earlier in the season. "The rain is about a month too late. It's helping in some areas, but it would have made all the difference in the world if we had gotten it about a month sooner," says Baldwin.

The majority of Georgia's peanut crop should be harvested by the end of September and the first week in October, he said. "Most of our peanuts, from Decatur County in extreme south Georgia to the northeast part of the state, will be dug in the same three-week period.

"There are exceptions. Our late-planted, dryland peanuts were just beginning to set a decent crop in mid-September. These peanuts were planted in late May and early June. The odds of those peanuts making it to harvest are slim.

"They've received some good rainfall, and they've set pods, but they need 50 to 60 days of warm weather, plus additional moisture. At this point in the season, additional moisture will hurt the 60 percent of the crop that's ready to harvest," says the agronomist.

The incidence of tomato spotted wilt virus was reported to be heavy in some areas in mid-September, says Baldwin, due primarily to the sudden growth of plants caused by the rainfall. "The plants are turning yellow, but they're close enough to maturity that we don't think it'll have a significant impact on yield."

Most peanut fields in Georgia appear to be "on target" for harvesting, he adds. "The biggest problem is that some fields are too wet to dig, especially those with heavy soils. We're a little delayed, but we have some leeway since the majority of the crop was planted after May 1. We may be a week past optimum maturity in some cases, but they seem to be holding up well."

The USDA's latest estimate for Georgia's peanut yield is 2,500 pounds per acre, and Baldwin says that sounds about right. "The final yield could go up slightly or it could go down, depending on weather conditions through the remainder of September and the first part of October."

A 2,500-pound yield would be slightly below last year's yield of 2,575 pounds, he notes. "The 100-degree temperatures in mid-August really hurt our crop this year."

Most of Georgia's 2000 peanut crop can best be compared to the old Timex watch commercial - "it has taken a lickin' and kept on ticken'," says John Beasley, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist.

"Although many of the previous 15 peanut crops were produced under drought or semi-drought conditions, this year's crop has taken the worst hit. Many of the old-timers compare this year's drought to 1954," said Beasley during the recent Georgia Peanut Tour.

"When you look at the rainfall totals for April through July, the 2000 growing season is very similar to 1954. The more recent dry drought years that many growers can refer to are 1980 and 1990," he adds.

The biggest problem this year, says Beasley, is that there were no general, widespread rains covering Georgia's peanut belt.

"Another problem with this year's drought is that, unlike previous drought years, Georgia was reeling from 24 months of below-normal rainfall. South Georgia had a year's worth of rain (about 50 inches) in a six-month period from October 1997 through March 1998.

"Since that time, there has been a rainfall deficit. This left surface water resources and underground water resources at record lows. Much of the state has been under water bans and restrictions during much of the summer."

Fortunately, says Beasley, agriculture has not been forced to stop watering. "However, there have been numerous meetings and discussions on how to preserve water resources in light of record-low flows of surface and underground water. Many producers were forced to irrigate numerous times early in the season just to establish a stand. This becomes very costly."

Dry-weather pest problems, primarily from lesser cornstalk borer, resulted in additional expenses not expected by growers, he says.

"It was so dry early in the season that even some irrigated fields had to be treated for lesser cornstalk borer. Normally, they're a hot, dry weather pest and rainfall or irrigation helps to suppress the problem. But that wasn't the case this year. Some irrigated fields were treated two or more time for lesser cornstalk borers."

Other dry-weather problems seen this year included Aspergillus crown rot - a disease that reduced plant stand - and poor weed control. Although seed quality appeared to be much improved over 1999, many growers were forced to plant into dry soils, said Beasley.

Peanut production in all of the lower Southeastern states, including Georgia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, is expected to total 1.76 billion pounds, according to the latest USDA report. This is 18 percent below last year's level.

Yields in the four-state area are expected to average 2,213 pounds per acre, down 284 pounds from last year. As of Sept. 3, the crop condition in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina was mostly fair to good while the crop condition in Alabama was rated mostly very poor.

Alabama producers appear to have suffered the most from this year's drought, according to the USDA report. The average yield in Alabama is estimated at 1,400 pounds per acre from 197,000 acres. This compares to the 1999 yield of 2,175 pounds per acre from 206,000 acres.