2015 was a terrible year for South Carolina farmers.
First came an unusually late March freeze. Then there was a scorching summer drought that withered crops of corn, soybeans and peanuts across wide swaths of the state. It was the worst harvest in decades as 35 counties were declared primary disaster areas.
And that was before the October storms that dropped 11 trillion gallons of water on the parched crops that farmers had labored all summer to irrigate. The fields flooded up to 2 feet in some low-lying areas, just days before the harvest.
“We will talk about 2015 as one of the really, really bad years,” said Charles Davis, a Clemson University extension agent who oversees Calhoun and Richland counties. “The drought got the first half of our crop and the flood got the second half, and that left us with basically nothing.”
It was something that I don’t know that I’d never seen before. I’ve been in the business 35 years, and I don’t remember seeing it that wet. There was a lot of flooded fields, cotton looking really bad because it was open at the time, water running down roads and fields, trees uprooted because of the saturated soil.
Charles Davis, Clemson county extension agent
Shaken farmers are dragging their old debts into the new year. They are frustrated that legislators, though well-intentioned, don’t seem to understand why it takes so much money to restart the agriculture industry after disastrous weather. With the spring planting season looming, they worry that the patchwork of what many see as meager emergency aid, crop insurance and extra loans won’t make a dent in paying bills or putting new crops in the ground.
“I think the problem is there is a misunderstanding and some bad information to some people in politics that doesn’t give them the true picture of what farmers face, and so it’s hard to make good decisions,” Davis said.
Continuing wet weather and plunging commodity prices mean that 2016 could be even worse.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I’ve never seen the concern and depression among agricultural people that I see now, because they know they’re sitting at the edge of a cliff,” Davis said. “They’re just hoping someone would throw them a rope.”
The state’s biggest industry suffered $587 million in losses last year, with $376 million due to the near-complete destruction of soybean, cotton and peanut crops, according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture.
The floods ruined the the cotton crop, and the already harvested peanuts, left out to dry, rotted in their shells. And lots more rain – too much – has fallen since.
72% Drop in South Carolina cotton production in 2015, while peanut production was down 35 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics service.
“Since the flood in October till this week, there have been no more than five days between rains,” said Stephanie Sox, S.C. Department of Agriculture communications director. “It’s just incredible. It really is.”
Many winter crops couldn’t be planted in the persistent muck, leading to an estimated $46 million in further losses.
With little inventory to sell, S.C. farmers faced a year’s worth of farming expenses that many couldn’t pay by Dec. 31. Hundreds of farmers traveled to Columbia in December to ask Gov. Nikki Haley for some of the flood-relief money to cover part of their uninsured crop losses.
No South Carolina farmer that entered this fall with proper crop insurance and a viable business should lose that business solely because of this flood.
Gov. Nikki Haley, in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack on Nov. 23
Members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation in Washington, including Republican Rep. Tom Rice and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, pledged their support but suggested in statements that Haley should make a formal request for extra assistance for farmers.
“I strongly support the ability of farmers to access disaster-relief funds for non-covered losses,” Graham said in a December statement. “Farmers are critical to the sovereignty and security of our nation.”
Haley requested $140 million in federal aid for homeowners affected by the flood but not farmers, saying she opposed bailing them out. The governor said farmers already had a federally subsidized insurance program and that some businesses shouldn’t receive special treatment over others.
“I don’t know what more money to ask for, because doing that would be going to taxpayers to say, ‘Give them money because they’re farmers,’ ” she said in December. “And that’s not my role as governor. So I am not comfortable doing that. What we did do is say we’re going to treat everybody exactly the same, and that’s what we did.”
Her office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Farming is different
Farmers say the problem is that agriculture isn’t like other businesses.
“Last year, normal small businesses were in operation until the flood came,” S.C. Farm Bureau President Harry Ott said in an interview.
“Yes, they were terribly impacted when the floodwaters came down, but then they cleaned up their shops, restocked and opened up, and hopefully by Christmas were making a profit again,” he said. “In farming, we spend money all the way from January to September, and 100 percent of our sales are in the field, and it was all wiped out.”
The governor did ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to speed up its crop insurance payments to farmers who’d lost their crops to the floods, and she requested a federal disaster designation that allowed farmers to access an emergency low-interest loan program.
But farmers aren’t interested in getting deeper into debt.
“Yes, there are low-interest loans and some farmers have taken advantage of those, but with the ongoing inability to get new crops in the field, it’s really just putting a Band-Aid on the situation,” Sox said.
Last week, South Carolina received $157 million in federal aid for flood recovery, more than half of the $300 million Congress allocated. Farmers again requested that some of the money be used to cover their losses, and Haley opposed it.
Still, the S.C. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved using $40 million in savings to aid farmers by allowing them to recover up to 20 percent of their losses via grant money that would not have to be repaid.
Why doesn’t crop insurance help more?
The 2014 Farm Bill eliminated direct, guaranteed payments for disaster relief and forced farmers to estimate how much of their crops to insure.
“With the overhaul of the farm bill, disaster payments are a thing of the past,” Sox said. “I think there’s a misconception from our state leadership because crop insurance is not designated for disasters like what we had, and even the best insurance money can buy still leaves a lot on the table that it doesn’t cover.”
Nobody could have planned for a thousand-year flood.
Harry Ott, S.C. Farm Bureau president
Even farmers who bought proper crop insurance and filed their claims meticulously couldn’t have been prepared for the double calamity of the drought and the flood.
Most farmers can afford policies that cover only 65 to 75 percent, according to Clemson agricultural economist Nathan Smith.
Plunging cotton and peanut prices further complicate things for farmers trying to dig themselves out of debt.
The disaster prepared for was drought, and when you’re looking at taking out your crop insurance with drought in mind you go for irrigation, which does you no good in a flood.
Charles Davis, Clemson county extension agent
“There is great concern in the agricultural community that at the end of 2016 it could be much worse than at the end of 2015,” Ott said.
This will especially affect smaller and family farms, extension agents say, and may discourage younger farmers in South Carolina who are just starting out.
“It’s years like this that make it extremely difficult, especially for the younger guys trying to take over a part of their dad’s farm, to get established, so when he retires it will stay in the family,” Davis said.
Many may be one storm away from abandoning farming altogether.
For now, they are hoping the funding in the House bill comes through soon and are asking Haley to give them a small part of the federal money. Although it would make only a dent in the losses, the extra $17 million the state received in addition to Haley’s $140 million request would help, Ott said.
“If we don’t plant another crop in April or May, it’s over. It’s the only hope a farmer has now,” he said.