HARLEYVILLE — After suffering through a decade of extremely dry summers, I.M. Benton spent about $150,000 on a new irrigation system for one section of his Colleton County farm.
Then it started raining. He hasn’t fired up the irrigation system because those fields have been under water most of this extraordinarily wet summer.
“I was expecting the irrigation to double the yield,” Benton said. And his actual yield from those fields this summer? “Nothing. It’s all drowned.”
Benton was among the group of farmers who showed up Monday at a news conference where Gov. Nikki Haley announced she had asked for federal agricultural disaster relief for the state’s swamped farmers.
“In a hurricane, you see the damage. In a tornado, you see the damage,” Haley said, pointing to the muddy fields at Pendarvis Farms outside Harleyville. “This is at that same level.”
State crop statistics indicate the loss is 30 percent or more – the threshold required to qualify for disaster loans — in 36 of 46 counties. Because disaster declarations also apply to neighboring counties, all 46 counties would fall under the declaration, if it is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hugh Weathers, state commissioner of agriculture and a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Orangeburg County, said he’s never seen the ground this saturated for this long.
“This, in my time farming, is the first time I’ve seen a prolonged situation like this that your fields were inaccessible, that crops just had to be left in the field,” Weathers said.
Based on state harvest statistics, about 20 percent of wheat planted in the state was simply left in the ground because harvesters would have bogged down in the soaked fields. That also means farmers couldn’t get into those fields to plant summer/fall soybean crops, Weathers said.
The hardest-hit crops have been wheat, soybeans, cotton, peaches and livestock forage crops. Fall cotton yields could be down remarkably if the rain doesn’t stop soon.
The rain has fallen hard and often this summer. This has been the wettest June 1-Aug. 18 on record at National Weather Service offices in Greenville-Spartanburg (27.75 inches) and Florence (24.65), second-wettest in Augusta (25.13) and fourth-wettest in Columbia (23.91). The only summers wetter in Columbia were 1991, 1973 and 1971.
The last really wet year in South Carolina was 2003, when an average of more than 55 inches fell statewide. That rainfall, however, was spread out more. Only about 14.5 inches fell in June and July that year, compared to nearly 20 inches this June and July.
And it hasn’t let up in August. With more than 5 inches over the weekend, Columbia Metropolitan Airport has reached 42.53 inches in less than eight months this year, nearing the average annual total of 46.61.
The agricultural damage has been widespread, but it has been worst in a belt from Colleton County up to Lee County, said Harry Ott, executive director of the state’s federal farm service agency and a Calhoun County farmer.
A former Democratic state representative who often opposed Haley on legislative issues, Ott praised her for asking for federal help. If the disaster declaration is granted, some farmers would qualify for the low interest loans to help them get through the year.
“This does not solve the problem in agriculture, just signing and getting a disaster declaration, but it does give us one more tool,” Ott said.
Haley, Weathers and Ott asked South Carolina residents to go out of their way to buy local produce in the coming months. “If there was ever a time to show your support for South Carolina farmers, it’s now,” Haley said.
The atmospheric conditions that have led to the rainy weather are expected to stick around at least a few more weeks. But farmers remain hopeful the rain will stop and they can get out in the fields to plant some fall crops, Weathers said. September and October traditionally are dry months in South Carolina, except when a tropical system hits the state.
Of course, long-term weather is unpredictable. One indication of how quickly the weather conditions have changed in the state: Farmers in nine Lowcountry counties have until Oct. 6 to apply for disaster relief granted for damages caused by drought conditions last summer.