A summer of heavy rain has hit South Carolina farmers hard, and prices could reflect the damage
Peach trees are drowning in Holly Hill, mildewed squash has been plowed under in Conway, and melons have been ruined on Johns Island.
Following two years of drought, South Carolina farmers got something arguably worse this year — far too much rain, with some areas seeing a year's worth by August.
“It's been too much water at one time, that's what it is,” said Joseph Fields, of Fields Farms on Johns Island. “We lost a lot of stuff — watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes.”
At local farmers' markets brimming with South Carolina peaches, butter beans, heirloom tomatoes and much more, it's hard to tell that anything has gone wrong back on the farm. But supplies of locally grown fruit and vegetables have taken a hard hit, and price increases are expected to follow.
“Restaurants and people who would be buying at the local level have to go farther and are paying more,” said Mark Arena, lead Clemson Cooperative Extension agent for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.
Some farmers missed planting opportunities because fields were too muddy to work. Farming chemicals washed off plants, roots grew shallow, and diseases flourished.
Some areas were hit by the deluge harder than others, but few were spared. This time last year the Greenville area had seen about 21 inches of rain. This year more than 47 inches have fallen so far at the airport, where it's measured.
At the other end of the state, not far from Myrtle Beach, Darel Watts said it's been a struggle at Sugarfoot Organic Farms in Conway.
“Planting was late, and then when we would have a window, it just rained after that and drowned seedlings,” he said. “And once we got things growing it was hard to cultivate, and then we got disease.”
“My mom has been on this property since she was 16, and she's 71, and she said it's the wettest she's ever seen,” Watts said. “When there's a drought, I can irrigate, but I can't wring it dry.”
Arena, the extension agent, said cotton production is down 20 to 30 percent and the crops are suffering from a fungus called Target Spot. He said moisture-loving powdery mildew and downy mildew have been attacking tomatoes and members of the cucurbit family, which includes melons, squashes and cucumbers.
South Carolina is a top-producing U.S. state for watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as peaches, peanuts, tobacco and pecans.
“If we could get a two-week respite it would give a lot of stuff a chance to perk up and do better,” Arena said.
Some farms escaped the worst of the damage due to particular soil conditions.
“There are isolated pockets, like on Johns Island, where they have good drainage conditions because of the sandy loam soil,” Arena said.
Wadmalaw farmer James Brown said conditions haven't been terrible, but they haven't been good.
Kenneth “Skinny” Melton at Lowland Farms on Johns Island said sweet corn has done well, but overall conditions have been difficult.
“It's been kind of tough with the rain, but we've been making do,” he said. “We didn't have to plow anything under, but we just didn't get as much.”
Near Holly Hill, Elliott Shuler said the heavy rains have caused problems for his peach farm.
“I'm actually going to lose some trees to the wet weather,” he said. “They are 9 or 10 years old, and I hoped to get another three or four years out of them.”
Too much rain is bad for peaches, even when the trees survive, Shuler said.
“It hurts the flavor, for one thing, and causes spots on them,” he said.
And while consumers might focus on the quality and price of regionally grown fruit and vegetables, cash crops also have been suffering.
“The cotton has very shallow roots because of the rain,” said Eddie Wells, state statistician for the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. “The tobacco leaves are lighter than usual.”
“All these crops need sunshine right now,” he said. “We're about halfway through the season for some of these crops, and (farmers) are facing some decisions they don't usually have to make.”
The rains did let up going into August, giving farmers a chance to survey their damaged crops and fields and decide their next step.
“I'm able to work now,” said Watts, in Conway. “It's just that there are weeds chest-high that I wasn't able to deal with.”
“I'm having to make decisions about what to just get rid of and start over,” he said. “There's still time for some replanting, and I have to think about fall and winter.”