South Carolina grapples with crop damage from heavy rain
HARLEYVILLE — Gov. Nikki Haley stepped through a muddy cornfield on Pendarvis Farms on Monday to highlight the problems this soggy summer has caused for farmers across South Carolina.
S.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers said 36 of South Carolina’s 46 counties have suffered crop losses of more than 30 percent. Wheat, soybeans, cotton, forage crops and peaches have been hurt the most.
“That’s just the first ripple in the pond,” Weathers said, adding that the economic impacts eventually will extend to lenders, fertilizer companies, other suppliers and eventually consumers.
The heavy rain not only has left some crops stranded and rotting in the fields, but it also has prevented farmers from clearing their fields to plant subsequent crops, such as soybeans.
Haley has asked Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsak to declare the state’s farms a disaster, and Vilsak is expected to act on the request by early fall. Such a declaration would let farmers in all 46 counties apply for low-interest emergency loans.
Haley spoke with a few dozen farmers just moments before she gathered with reporters on a nearby field.
“This is not just a stop in Dorchester County,” she told the farmers. “This is ‘Help me help you.’ You’ve got a good team in South Carolina ready to help you. We’re on standby.”
I.M. Benton of Benton’s Hay Farm in Colleton County was among those who made a short trip to hear the governor.
Benton said the rain has made it difficult to harvest hay from the 600 acres he is working with his son and grandson. “The hay that we got is low quality,” he added. “We won’t get no money out of it.”
The only upside for Benton and other farmers is that their cattle are eating well.
Asked what he thought of the possible federal assistance, Benton said, “We don’t need more loans. We need money to pay the loans we’ve already got.”
Harry Ott, a Calhoun County farmer and former minority leader in the state House of Representatives, resigned his Statehouse seat in June to accept a new appointment as director of the South Carolina Farm Service Agency.
Ott said while farms across the state have been harmed, the worst damage has been between Columbia and the coast, including Dorchester, Lee and Orangeburg counties.
However, he said many Upstate farmers have planted tomatoes and other crops in low-lying areas near rivers — areas that also have flooded over.
“You’re seeing a farming community that’s in crisis,” Haley said, adding that residents can help by going to farmers markets and buying produce certified as being grown in South Carolina.
It’s unclear how many neighboring states are seeking similar help. Ott said he has heard of similar problems in Georgia and North Carolina but wasn’t sure of the details.
And the exact scope of the losses in South Carolina won’t be clear until later. John Pendarvis said a quarter of his wheat crop is still in the field.
“Those 30 percent losses we told you about at the end of July could reach 50 percent,” Ott said.
Weathers said his family farm in Orangeburg County was unable to harvest 20 percent of its wheat crop and is not going to plant a soybean crop this year.
Pendarvis said he chose the cornfield for Monday’s press event with Haley because it was one part of his property that reporters and others would be able to reach without their vehicles getting stuck.
Counties across South Carolina have seen anywhere from 7 to 21 more inches of rainfall than normal this year, according to the S.C. Climate Office. Rainfall in Charleston is about 12 inches above normal at this point in the year.
Ott said the federal disaster designation is not a cure-all for the state’s farmers but would provide some help.
He said farmers also are concerned about whether Congress will pass a farm bill later this year — and what the bill will contain. That bill, which would continue agricultural programs set to expire Sept. 30, has gotten bogged down.
Weathers said he has had “some very frank” conversations about the farm bill with members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation.
“My message was that the farm bill has always been a bipartisan effort — sort of above the fray — and this year proved to be different. That was somewhat disheartening to me,” he said. “Let’s have our differences. Let’s make sure the wastes, if there are any, are dealt with ... but realize the true merit of the farm bill is that it is a safety net for the production of food in this country.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.