August 27, 2008

State Pecan Crop Suffers in Winds

THOMASVILLE, Ga. - Pecan grower Tom Stone was stranded at a vacation home on the Gulf of Mexico as Tropical Storm Fay waltzed across northern Florida. When he returned to southern Georgia on Sunday - even then finding some major roads blocked by downed trees and power lines - he found his well-tended orchards in shambles.

"I was devastated," the Thom-as County grower said Monday. "We've lost 50 percent of the crop. We knew we were going to get a little rain, but we didn't know we were going to get all this wind and rain together."

In preliminary assessments, the storm's high wind and torrential rain seemed to take the heaviest toll on Georgia's $128 million pecan crop, especially in southern counties along the Florida line. The storm also toppled corn stalks throughout southern Georgia.

Pecan trees were vulnerable because they're loaded with immature nuts and foliage.

"It's kind of like a sailboat with the wind blowing on the trees," said Mr. Stone, a third-generation pecan grower with 330 acres of trees. His crop insurance will help offset some of the losses, but he's also hoping the area might qualify for federal disaster assistance.

Mike Griesinger, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Peachtree City, said the rain should ease north Georgia's "exceptional" drought, noting that Atlanta has a rainfall deficit of 8 inches and Athens 15 inches over the past 12 months.

State climatologist David Stooksbury said the rain will improve stream flows and pastures and slightly raise the levels of major reservoirs including Lanier, Hartwell and Thurmond lakes, which provide drinking water.

"This is definitely what we need," he said. "It will not end the drought. It will make a dent."

Georgia's southernmost counties - Lowndes, Brooks, Grady, Thomas and Decatur - took the brunt of Fay's wind and rain Friday and Saturday.

Don Clark, Thomas County's extension service coordinator, said 17 inches to 23 inches of rain fell in the county and the wind ravaged pecan orchards.

The storm also blew some tobacco leaves off their stalks, and the moist condition make cotton plants vulnerable to a disease known as boll rot.

The forecast calls for a 50 percent to 70 percent chance of precipitation in southern Georgia through Wednesday, so it could be days before growers can return to the fields to resume harvesting what was hoped to be a $212 million corn crop.

Mr. Stone said Fay caused the greatest destruction in his pecan orchards since the loss of 190 trees during the 2004 hurricane season.

"We had a bumper crop," he said. "They were looking fine. We're disappointed that we went this far and then lost this much."

Originally published by Associated Press.

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