Coastal Georgia continues to lie in the grip of a severe drought. The only areas of the nation in worse rainfall deficit are west Texas, central New Mexico and northern Minnesota, which are suffering through an extreme drought.
Vidalia ended 2011 with a water deficit of nearly 12 inches. The Bulloch/Statesboro area ended the year almost 14 inches short. Not to be outdone, the Brunswick area ended the year with a water deficit of more than 18 inches.
With the 2012 rainfall deficit at more than an inch — even including last week’s rain — the central Georgia coast is closing in on a 20-inch rainfall deficit.
It has brought changes.
I have seen more wild turkey along the roadside in the past two weeks than I have seen in the previous 10 years. I wish I could attribute this to the fine work of the National Wild Turkey Federation, but the drought is the main factor here. Hunger will drive wildlife into high-risk behavior.
The drought has left the normally wary turkey with little to eat in the woods. Roadside ditches have become one of the few water and green forage sources for them.
Two weeks ago, I took a call in Brunswick where citrus trees were having their bark stripped off the smaller limbs by rats. The rats lived in the garden shed and did not have a ready source of water and food. Crossing the open garden exposed them to raptors and other predators, so citrus bark became their nighttime source for water, minerals and energy.
This is not helping the deer herd, either. Last year, they were so hungry that they browsed cotton.
Unless we see some real rain really soon, the deer may not even have the dryland cotton this year.
Of course, the 800-pound gorilla is wildfire. Tree farmers try to keep their prescribed burns on schedule to keep the forest floor from building up with fuel, but drought makes the opportunities to burn safely fewer and farther between.
There are still enough unmanaged woods out there to be a real problem. Much of it is wetlands that dry up and have a lot of fuel, just waiting for a lightning strike or a cigarette butt.
Last year, dryland (unirrigated) cotton farmers who had faith the rain would come planted their cotton in soil too dry to allow the cottonseed to sprout. When planting on dry soil, the planter creates a small cloud of dust as it goes, so farmers call this “dusting in” their seed.
At $700 per bag for cottonseed, farmers with a foot of rainfall deficit are thinking twice and thrice about dusting in cotton this year.
Prices for corn, peanuts and cotton are the best they have been in years, but if it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t matter.
It looks like those with irrigated fields will be able to take advantage while dryland farmers will be taking it on the chin — again.
Food prices already are up 5 percent and projected to double in five years. Reducing the supply of food and fiber does nothing to reduce the rate of increase. No rain results in consumers paying more at the store.
Not only are we drier on the coast, but we are warmer, too.
The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for Georgia has a new zone for us. Coastal Georgia has been in Zone 8b for years, but based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature from 1976 through 2005, a sliver of the coast now is in Zone 9a.
Yep, Florida weather is creeping up the coast. The eastern 80 percent of Camden County is now 9a. The line tapers toward the coast as it moves north and includes St. Catherine’s Island and Sunbury at its northern tip.
North of the Medway is still 8b. Driving south on I-95, one crosses from 8b to 9a at about the weigh station between the Darien and Eulonia exits.
What does this mean to the plants? Nothing really. They never learned to read.
It does mean we will have to revise a bunch of extension publications. We three agricultural agents along the coast — Robbie Edalgo in Camden County, Robert Bell in Liberty County and me in Glynn and McIntosh counties — who will have to broaden our plant palettes for recommendations. There were no changes for Bryan or Chatham counties.
We still have space left in the master naturalist class that starts March 28 and in Rivers 2 Reefs in mid-May. Stop thinking about it and sign up!
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 912-554-7578. This year you will see official Zone 9a as well as 8b and 8a.