Farmers in Georgia and Alabama are planting fields of pure dust -- if they are planting at all -- and feeding cows by hand because of parched grazing land. Fires in Tennessee have claimed 56,000 of the state's 12 million acres of mountain forestry. Fifty days have passed with only a quarter-inch of rain in the Southeast, the region's longest drought in a century.

"It's just a pitiful situation," said David Parkman Jr., manager of the John Deere dealership in Columbus, Ga. "I have some close friends who are farmers, and they are not the same people right now. They are not fun to be around because they are so deeply depressed, and I don't blame them."

Throughout Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, the National Weather Service estimates that rain levels are 10 to 15 inches below normal for the first four months of the year.

In Tennessee, where the number of forest fires has tripled over last year, precipitation levels have been below normal since December 1984.

According to Mark Suehl, National Weather Service meteorologist in Nashville, the rainfall deficit since then is 32 inches, marking the longest drought since record-keeping began in 1871.

At the Cumberland Plateau, which covers 800,000 acres in the middle of Tennessee, 8,000 acres of timberland have been destroyed by brush, trash and field fires this year. A March 18 fire claimed 419 acres, and on May 5, another 400 acres were destroyed. Both fires had to be fought with a tractor plow, six to eight people from the Tennessee Division of Forestry and 40 to 50 volunteers who patrolled nearby roads, poured water provided by pumps on pickups and used fire rakes to isolate the blaze.

In eastern Tennessee, 27,000 acres of forest were claimed in nearly 3,000 fires. Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) banned open burning statewide.

Despite the winding paths of the Cumberland, Mississippi and Tennessee rivers through the state's agricultural land, Tennessee farmers are nervous because of their reliance on rain water. Of Tennessee's 95 counties, 79 report that low soil moistures and dry weather have slowed germination of crops such as sorghum, soybeans and cotton.

Because of the high cost of irrigation, farmers in the Southeast will play a waiting game and gamble on mother nature. The waiting game has started in central Alabama where one farmer has decided to stop planting and simply wait.

"It's like West Texas around here," said Ben Bowden, 52, a farmer who fears he could face his worst financial disaster since he began farming 34 years ago. "You can drive miles and miles, and you can see land that is prepared to plant and would be in a growing crop this time of year, but it's waiting on rain."

Bowden usually farms more than 1,100 acres of cotton, 700 acres of peanuts and 2,300 acres of soybeans and raises 400 head of cattle in the central region of Alabama. But this year he is considering selling his cattle because his grazing land has dried up and he does not have the hay to feed them. He has lost 75 percent of his wheat harvest and so far has planted only 15 percent of the crops he usually raises.

Unless rain falls within 10 days, Bowden said, he will not plant at all, fearing that the summer dry season will make a meal of his crops before consumers can.

In Georgia, where the Crop and Livestock Reporting Service rated 100 percent of the state's agricultural land as having short moisture, farmers are also playing a dangerous waiting game. They have planted less than half of crops usually planted at this time of year, hoping for more moisture.

More alarming for Georgia farmers is news that only 7 percent of the counties have had a good corn harvest, none has had good cotton production and only 8 percent were rated as having good a peanut harvest.

In North Carolina, tobacco planting is behind schedule and more than 16,000 acres of dry brush and forest have burned since Monday.

In South Carolina, B.K. Webb, director of extension services at Clemson University, predicts that farmers could lose half of the state's 300,000 acre wheat crop and suffer a $20 million loss.

"We are planting seeds in the dust, just gambling we are going to get some rain," said Bill Baker, who farms 1,500 acres of cotton in Alabama. "We could still turn this thing around if we can get some rain in the next 10 days. They are not forecasting any rain. If we don't get it, then it will be a nightmare.