Corn profits drying up

Farmer Billy Walker of Summerville said he doesn’t have a big enough operation for crop insurance. Local farmers are feeling the pinch from this summer’s drought.

The spring rains kept the fields so wet Billy Walker didn’t bother to plant most of his corn acreage. Michael Kemmerlin never got to half of his in the soggy ground. Then the June heat crippled what they did plant, just as it tasseled to pollinate. But at least the Summerville and the Ridgeville farmer brought in a crop.

Across the Lowcountry and state, the corn harvest has been a disaster. And the farther inland you go, the worse the drought and heat was. For example, Greenville had its third-driest summer in the past half century. Acre after acre of corn stalks stunted and dried out.

As the last of the crop comes in, 35 of the 46 counties across the state have been declared a natural disaster by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, qualifying farmers to apply for low-interest loans to offset losses.

It won’t help, “unless growers want to take on more debt,” said Rebecca Hellmuth, Clemson University Extension agent for Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Corn growers will definitely lose money on the crop, she said.

“Farmers’ primary source of relief will come from crop insurance — if they have purchased it,” she said. “The large farmers most likely did, but the smaller guys who are growing a little bit of deer corn probably didn’t.” Even the insurance won’t cover all losses, she said.

The extension didn’t have any statewide loss estimates for the year yet, but it’s millions of dollars just in corn, said Jim Melvin, of the extension.

Worse still, the harvest was the second bad one in three years, after drenching rain in 2013 wiped out acres. Meanwhile, the short supply here hasn’t spiked the price farmers get, partially because the Midwest had a bumper year.

“Our market follows theirs,” Kemmerlin said.

The lost crop in the Lowcountry mostly made for shortfalls in “ear corn” used for livestock feed and deer corn, used to lure deer.

Walker of Summerville who raises cows, planted 3 or 4 acres instead of his usual 15, he said. He turned to hay to make up the feed difference. His acres “at least made corn, where a lot of people’s acres didn’t,” he said. His is not a big enough operation to pay crop insurance, so he’ll just eat the loss.

Kemmerlin of Ridgeville planted 30 acres instead of his usual 70 to 75. He expects to have lost 50 to 60 percent of that, he said Thursday as he brought in the last of it. He’ll sell some “at the elevator” for poultry or beef feed, the rest for deer corn. His crop was insured, but “no matter what we do, we’ll be in the red,” he said.

In a normal year, unirrigated Lowcountry acres would produce 80 to 90 bushels of corn per acre, Hellmuth said. This year it’s maybe 25 bushels.

“Some fields are being left unharvested because they aren’t yielding enough to make it worth running the combine through them,” she said. Irrigated corn did better but is coming in at 200 bushels per acre instead of 230 to 240. “I’ve talked to growers who have been farming for 30 years, and this is the worst year they can remember for corn,” she said.

“Orangeburg County is wiped out completely,” Kemmerlin said. “A lot of people really hadn’t recovered from 2013 yet. Those guys, I really feel sorry for them.”

Other Lowcountry crops, such as cotton, peanuts and soybeans, did better. And coastal counties did better than inland. At the National Weather Service station in North Charleston, more than 43 inches of rain had fallen by Sept. 25.

The drought has persisted, despite more frequent rains in recent weeks. The state’s drought committee Thursday removed Charleston County from drought status, but Berkeley and Dorchester remain in moderate drought, a designation that means there is an increasing threat of drought.

Walker now turns to his colder weather forage and soil-replenishing crops — rye, maybe oats.

“We’ll see what the fall and winter do for us,” he said.