LYONS, Ga. — Farmer Aries Haygood grabbed the top of a freshly planted onion and gave it a gentle pull. The green plant sprang from the ground with little resistance, a sign its roots weren't grabbing hold because the powdery soil is too dry.
"Right now, we should start seeing that the roots are catching, and they're not," said Haygood, who was supervising planting of Vidalia onions on his fields. "The main reason is because we have not had the rain on them."
Farmers across the South are contending with abnormally dry weather and a drought that began this spring. Crops in dry fields then baked during stretches of record-setting summer heat that scorched peanut fields, stressed cotton plants and stunted citrus fruit.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared disasters in parts of 16 states, with some of the driest spots in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
Just 18 inches of rain have fallen since July on Toombs County in southeast Georgia, where Haygood and his workers had just planted four rows of Vidalia onions inside earthen beds running up and down his field. That is half as much rain as last year and less than what fell during the state's last major drought that ended in 2009.
The county is one of the state's largest onion producers – a crop worth $83 million in the state in 2009 – and specializes in the famed Vidalia onion.
Conditions are not ideal for onion planting. Haygood pointed to the sandy, crusty topsoil on his field, then kicked his work boots an inch or two deeper to find what he wanted: moister, darker soil.
"Last year it wasn't as dusty, it wasn't as powdery," he said.
Haygood irrigates his fields, though free rainfall helps. Heavy irrigation can cost up to $45 in fuel and electricity an acre every month, or thousands of dollars in additional expenses. Like many farmers, he said fields that benefit from the right amount of natural rainfall tend to produce more crops than even properly irrigated fields.
The dry spell will likely continue in Georgia. UGA professor David Stooksbury, the state's climatologist, said dry conditions are common after a wet winter like last year's that was caused by the El Nino weather pattern.
"It's not unusual that come mid-April for the system to kind of flip and go into a dry period," he said.
Three-quarters of Alabama's land are either abnormally dry or in a drought. Conditions are worst in east-central Alabama near the Georgia line, where some areas are about 10 inches below normal for the year after going without rain for more than two months during the crucial late-summer growing season.
"It has really devastated the peanut and cotton crops, and the cattle producers have been feeding hay since midsummer. The pastures where they graze was just bone dry, and the grass just didn't grow," said horticulturist Chuck Browne, the extension coordinator in Lee County, Ala.
"Our farmers were digging peanuts this fall, and they'd pull up the plants and there would be no nuts in the shells," Browne said.
Too little rain makes for smaller oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and tangelos in Florida, said Louis Schacht, manager of Schacht Groves in Vero Beach, right in the middle of the state's most-drought afflicted pockets.
"The fruit's less desirable on the foreign markets, Europe and Japan," he said.
Abnormally dry conditions in North Carolina have covered much of the state since April, with 18 counties in the west and central regions still experiencing a moderate drought. Barbee Farms in Concord, near Charlotte, had to rely on irrigation to water all of its crops, resulting in a smaller yield than the farmers get with the help of average rainfall.
"It's really hard to raise something without rainfall," said Brent Barbee, a sixth-generation farmer. "When you're watering stuff just to keep it alive, you're not going to get the production out of it that you would from a rained-on crop."
The farm grows fresh vegetables and fruit year-round, but Barbee said there's not much point in picking the collard greens, kale and other winter vegetables they normally harvest through the end of December.
"They're toast right now," he said.
Losses can show up throughout the economic food chain. Randy Branch, a farmer based in Georgia's Appling County, cannot irrigate all his fields because he rents farmland. He lost part of his peanut crop, which he calls "making a zero," a first in his 25-year career. He sold it as cowfeed.
Some of his dry cotton fields yielded about as little as a quarter of what he expected. He could face more losses because he owns a fertilizer businesses and is concerned other farmers with similar problems may have difficulty paying their bills.
"I'm double-whammied on this," he said.
Irrigating fields helps, but University of Georgia agriculture extension agent Jason Edenfield said he and other longtime farmers believe nothing can replace rain.
"There's just something about what we get from the good Lord above that's just probably a little bit better than what we can do ourselves," he said.
Associated Press staff writer Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C., and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.