USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, left, discusses drought-affected peanuts with Wilbon Gregg, owner of the non-irrigated field. Merrigan visited farms in south Georgia Monday to view the damage of Georgia’s third straight drought year and report to the USDA secretary and President Obama.
EDISON, Ga. -- Wilbon Gregg entertained a special sort of guest at his Calhoun County farm Monday, though he may have been happier had there been no reason for her visit. With clouds of dry, yellow dust settling from the access road nearby, Greggs and U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan discussed the 72 acres of stunted peanuts in his "dryland" field.
"If it doesn't turn around and we get some rain in the next 10 or 15 days, we can abandon this field," Gregg said. "Hopefully next year we'll have some irrigation out here."
Gregg's peanuts were not the only crops visited by Merrigan on her trip to south Georgia, she said. According to Merrigan, while 61 percent of American is suffering drought conditions, Georgia warrants special consideration because the state is on its way to completing its third straight year with inadequate rainfall.
"Georgia is the toughest place in the country right now," Merrigan said. "I wanted to come down here to get a sense of the situation and report to Secretary (of Agriculture Tom) Vilsack and President Obama what I've seen."
As with Gregg's endangered peanuts, Merrigan found the greatest impact on dryland, or non-irrigated, crops, she said, but added she sees issues with watered land as well. According to Merrigan, many sources of surface water, such as creeks, lakes and ponds, have dried up or nearly so. Underground aquifers aren't recharging.
As dire as drought conditions are for south Georgia crops such as peanuts, cotton, sorghum and wheat, most farmers have minimized their losses with crop insurance, Merrigan said. At greater issue may be the difficulty some farmers have finding feed for their livestock.
"That's going to be a problem," Merrigan said. "Already we see people liquidating herds because they don't have feed or pasture. We went by some pastures where there's not a lot to nibble on."
Merrigan said consumers shouldn't be concerned about the drought's affect on food prices, at least not in the short term, as it generally takes "a while" for higher prices to emerge. In fact, liquidated herds could translate into lower beef prices at the supermarket. Merrigan did say she'd read "some media reports" of higher prices wrongfully attributed to the drought, as well as cases of price-gouging at some stores.
"The secretary sort of called some people out and said, 'Don't exploit the situation and raise prices unnecessarily,'" Merrigan said. "Consumers should know that the average farmer receives only 14 cents from each dollar of your supermarket bill."
Merrigan said the greatest single response to drought conditions around the country and to the plight of farmers is to pass a new farm bill as soon as possible. The most recent omnibus farm bill was enacted into law on June 18, 2008, and many of the disaster programs within the bill have expired.
"I think it's time to cross the finish line on the farm bill," Merrigan said. "The Senate has passed a bill, the House committee has passed a bill. It takes a while for a bill to be conferenced and for all the details to be decided, so it's premature for me to comment on the actual specifics of the bill. What I can tell you with all my heart, as passionately as I possibly can -- having a farm bill is better than not having a farm bill. Whether you like 80 percent or 90 percent, we need to have a farm bill."
According to Merrigan, Washington is doing what it can, including expediting the process of disaster declaration and opening up additional acres under the Conservation Reserve Program to haying and grazing.
"The everyday person is very distant," Merrigan said. "Today, about 99 percent of us are not on the farm or ranch. A sunny side to a really bad situation is that this may be a wake-up call for America that what we do on our farms and ranches really does matter to our economy. One out of every 12 jobs in America is tied to agriculture in some way."