The farmer’s leathery, dirt-stained hand cradled a few fruits of the hellish growing season.
“There’s supposed to be a perfect little pretty bean in there,” said Drew Martin, looking at the shriveled hull and soybeans in his palm. “But they just rotted.”
Walking through his withering field in Galivants Ferry, Martin pointed out that losing 120 acres of soybeans during the recent flood wasn’t his only problem farming this year.
Wet weather in the spring hampered planting. Then a summer drought left the fields unquenched. A heat wave scorched the crops. When the rain finally arrived, the October deluge drowned the few soybeans those fields produced.
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“It’s just been bad ever since the day I planted to be honest with you,” the 34-year-old said.
Martin comes from a long line of farmers and he’s been toiling in the fields since he graduated from high school in 1999. He can’t recall a season like this one.
“Probably the hardest year,” he said. “It’s always been dry or it’s always been wet, but never both in the same series of crops, you know? … Usually, you have one crop that does well.”
As local, state and federal officials continue calculating the cost of October’s flood, the losses from crop damage are also adding up.
Earlier this month, the South Carolina agriculture commissioner conservatively estimated that crop destruction from the flood may top $300 million.
One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is we were in a disaster area before the disaster. Three months of minimal rainfall and 15 straight days of 100-degree heat in June, that was rough on the crops.
William Hardee, Clemson Extension Service’s agronomy agent for Horry and Marion counties
Locally, Clemson Extension Service agents have been meeting with farmers, asking them to fill out damage reports. Those numbers won’t include the losses from the extreme drought, which claimed nearly half of the area’s corn crop.
“One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is we were in a disaster area before the disaster,” said William Hardee, Clemson Extension Service’s agronomy agent for Horry and Marion counties. “Three months of minimal rainfall and 15 straight days of 100-degree heat in June, that was rough on the crops.”
Along with those challenges, Horry farmers knew early in the year that falling commodity prices would make turning a profit difficult.
“We knew we would have to make very good yields just to break even,” Hardee said. “We were already in a hole before the storm came. But when the storm did come, it kind of wiped out any chance we had of making anything.”
Locally, the hardest hit crops have been peanuts, cotton and soybeans.
The weather also affected hay that had been put up for livestock. Two weeks of high humidity and extreme moisture led to mold and mildew building up in the hay. Most of the damaged hay is unsuitable for horses, Hardee said, and he suspects the quality will also be too poor for cows.
“It has ruined a lot of hay that was in storage,” he said of the flood.
Clemson Extension officials said they hadn’t received a county-by-county breakdown of farm damage estimates. Some losses, they said, cannot be calculated until the crops are out of the field.
What is certain is that the most recent federal farm bill includes no money for disaster relief.
“The policy that the feds undertook in 2014 basically was ‘You’re going to have to insure your own crops. You can’t count on the federal government to bail you out,’” said state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, who sits on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in the S.C. General Assembly. “What we’re trying to do is use sort of the Sandy Model. After Hurricane Sandy, the feds stepped in and made special allocations for certain affected areas.”
Hembree added that those efforts must be undertaken by the state’s representatives in Washington D.C., though he’s not ruling out farmer assistance from South Carolina’s General Assembly.
“If we could put together something that’s reasonable, I think we will have a group that’s sympathetic and will listen to us,” he said of his colleagues in Columbia. “This thing is still so fresh, we’re still sort of in the assessment stage. ... We’re still kind of catching our breath.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does offer a low-interest emergency loan program and some farmers have a portion of their crops insured, but local officials say those programs won’t come close to solving the problem. There are other challenges, too.
“When you talk about flood damage, the crop damage is just a small part of the equation,” said Blake Lanford, a regional administrator with Clemson Extension. “What about farm ponds where the dams got breached? Or what about roads, farm roads?”
Insurance for farmers can also be complicated. Lanford said there are programs available for row crops such as soybeans, corn and tobacco, but specialty crops (i.e. fruits and vegetables) aren’t insured the same way.
“You don’t insure that stuff,” he said.
$300 millionEarly estimate of flood damage to South Carolina crops
Although local farmers primarily deal with row crops, Lanford said the flood put vegetable growers in a bind, particularly those whose plants sat in floodwaters.
“There’s just really nothing you can do with it,” he said of waterlogged vegetables.
The flood’s impact can be seen in the selection at Grand Strand farmers markets, said Samantha Tipton, executive director of the Waccamaw Market Cooperative, which runs seven markets in Horry and and Georgetown counties.
“We had three vendors at our market this morning,” she said Thursday. “So it’s really sad to see.”
The market season was already winding down, but the flood wiped out some vendors’ vegetables. Another farmer who sells goat cheese had a problem with dairy goats that stopped eating during the rainy weather. The farmer couldn’t milk the goats during that time, thus reducing her supply.
“You get a lot of these indirect hits that you don’t initially think about,” Tipton said. “But everybody’s been affected in some way.”
The farmer just keeps going. And keeps trying again.
Drew Martin, Galivants Ferry farmer
In Georgetown County, this month’s downpour drenched Millgrove Farms.
Carol Williams’ family specializes in organic crops, including Asian greens, kale, collards, cabbage and broccoli. When the rains came this month, she had five acres of vegetables in the earth.
“The 24 inches of rain just drowned them all,” she said. “We’re surrounded by water, with creeks and the river. The fields did not flood with that kind of water. It was the rain that could not drain off of that field. So we have no crops left.”
Had the flood come in August, the family could have replanted. At this point, there’s just not enough time.
Yet despite her losses, Williams said the flood could have been worse. The family’s coastal Bermuda hay was planted on high, sandy ground that drains well. They were baling it last week.
“It’s OK,” she said. “God is good. There’s people without homes. We feel blessed. Our home was high and dry. ... We’re just going to keep on keeping on and come springtime we’ll plant those seeds.”
At Martin’s farm in Galivants Ferry, he remains equally resolute. He also acknowledges that others have been hit harder by the drought and the flood than he has.
Martin knows farmers south of him who received more rain. And he didn’t plant any corn this year, so he won’t suffer those losses the way many of his peers did. He also has insurance, though not for the amount he’s invested.
Martin hopes state or federal officials can develop some type of aid program.
“I feel like they’ll do the right thing,” he said. “I’m praying and hoping.”
Regardless of what the government does, he plans to stick with farming, turning over dirt on 1,200 acres in Horry and Marion counties.
“The farmer just keeps going,” he said. “And keeps trying again.”
Clemson Extension Service is asking farmers affected by the recent flood to fill out damage assessment forms. To receive a copy of the form or for more details, contact the Horry County office at (843) 365-6715.