The Double R Farm has produced abundant crops for four generations of Rabon family farmers here, and despite the double whammy of record rains during the October harvest last year and last month’s hurricane, they are determined to weather the hardship.
“I'll do whatever I gotta do, even if it means I’m worn out and broke,” said Ronald Rabon. “But if I make it this year, it will take a miracle from the Lord.”
Tropical storm-force winds and 12 inches of rain from Hurricane Matthew battered 700 acres of his cotton just as the bolls began to open, resulting in hardlock that made picking nearly impossible.
They were able to salvage about 100 acres, mostly from farm lands tucked among wooded areas protected from the wind. Instead of 1,400 bales of cotton this year, the Rabons will likely end up with about 450 bales.
“I’ve lost more money than I made in two years,” Rabon said.
The Rabons and farmers across South Carolina were hit by a drought last year, and after months of praying for rain, the heavens opened in early October and dropped about 14 inches in 24 hours. Farmers in Horry County racked up $9 million in damage, while statewide the amount topped $530 million.
William Hardee III, Clemson University’s area agronomy agent for Horry County, said farmers were on the path for a perfect crop this year – until Matthew hit.
Cotton was hit; soybeans and peanut crops also were severely damaged, Hardee said.
“We needed a perfect year to make up for last year, but this took our chance away,” Hardee said.
Although the final damage assessment has not been tallied, Hardee said it appears that the hurricane will not exceed last year’s drought and record flood destruction of crops.
“It’s not doom and gloom, not the devastation we saw last year, but it was bad for a lot of folks, worse for some others,” Hardee said.
Out of 600 acres of cotton planted last year, the Rabons salvaged 200 acres that amounted to less than 350 bales.
“Now I’m telling you, it’s been tough,” said the patriarch of the family, 86-year-old Dock Rabon.
Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed $40 million in farm aid this spring, calling it an industry bailout, prompting a backlash from farmers and lawmakers who voted to overturn her decision.
That funding eventually paid about 25 percent of Rabon’s losses, and he was forced to refinance the 1,200 acre farm.
“I expected to make it up this year, but the cotton hit the dirt. And what didn’t fall, hardlocked. It ain’t looking good,” Rabon said.
Nearly 800 farmers in Horry County have applied for assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of damage caused by Hurricane Matthew.
However, direct payments for damaged crops were eliminated in the 2014 Farm Bill, so aid is limited to emergency conservation problems, property damage, debris removal, leveling land or repairing fences for livestock.
State agriculture officials are still assessing the recent damage and officials are mum on whether any financial assistance will be forthcoming.
“Two years in a row is rough,” said Jared Martin, who estimates he lost half of his 300-acre peanut crops due to Hurricane Matthew.
“We’ve got to have some help, I can’t handle no more,” said Martin. “Insurance don’t pay nothing, and our government just ain’t helping.”
Martin and his father at the D and J Farm managed to pay their bills last year, with only $2,000 left to split between them. This year, Martin said he will break even.
“I’m working all year for nothing,” Martin said.
Rabon and Martin are uncertain about their future in farming, and Martin isn’t willing to commit to planting crops next year.
“All I know is farming, but I guess I could go to Walmart and shake some hands,” Rabon said.
Rabon has already reached out to state and federal lawmakers to let them know the severity of the damage, but he’s counting on private refinancing to pull him through to farm another year.
“In all the years I’ve farmed, I’ve never had to call my congressperson or governor for help, we’ve always made a living,” Rabon said.
Rabon says he’s not looking for a free handout, but unless the Farm Bill is amended, he says farmers won’t be able to survive severe natural disasters, like the back-to-back harvest storms.
“When I’m dead, it’s over,” Rabon said. “My kids can’t make a living farming, and I don’t blame them. They watched me go broke and wore out.”
And when that happens, he asked, “Who will feed this country?”