Late freeze, drought hammered South Carolina in 2007

Last year's late freeze, and the on-going record drought, are estimated to have cost South Carolina about $270 million dollars in farm level losses, Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers says.

The late freeze last Easter cost the peach industry alone nearly $40 million. In addition, late maturing row crops like cotton and soybeans as well as nursery crops were also hit hard by the drought. Ponds have dried up creating water shortages for irrigation and livestock.

The livestock industry is also continuing to suffer from the lack of hay, and the high price of importing hay from long distances has supported a wave of livestock sales. The freight now costs more than the hay in some cases. Hay and pasture losses alone in the state total an estimated $74 million. About 2.3 million acres of the 4.85 million acres in farmland have been affected by the disasters.

Commissioner Weathers says, “Incorporating many factors, South Carolina’s estimated farm losses are primarily based on this year’s production compared to last year’s production. The ripple affect goes far beyond $270 million dollars in losses at the farm level. When farmers lose, communities suffer and consumers could face higher prices at the grocery store.”

Though not as obvious, forestry has suffered from the drought as well. Forestry studies show that rainfall deficits during extreme to severe drought can result in significant growth losses and monetary losses for landowners.

If a prolonged drought, as being experienced, causes the loss of just half of a normal year’s timber growth, South Carolina Forestry Commission data indicates a potential financial loss of approximately $337 million in 2007 across the state.

According to Commission Forest Management Chief Joel Felder, “This loss would equate to 70 percent of the value of all the wood normally harvested in South Carolina annually.”

In addition to losing timber value during a drought, forest and landowner investments can be further damaged by increased wildfire occurrence and losses, poor survival of seedlings planted and possible need for replanting, and increased insect and disease losses due to stress on individual and groups of trees.

State Forester Gene Kodama advises, “The best remedies and preparation for drought impacts on forests continues to be active management and conservation of all components: timber, water, wildlife, and recreation to maintain healthy balanced ecosystems.”

Add the potential timber value losses with agriculture losses and the total is about $600 million for the 2007 year. Agriculture is a $2 billion industry in cash value. Timber has a delivered value of about $870 million. Together, agriculture and forestry total about $3 billion a year, but the combined economic impact makes agriculture and forestry the top industry in the state.

Drought and other disasters affect everyone. The adverse impacts on the people and economy were made especially clear during the drought of 1998-2002 that impacted agriculture, forestry, tourism, power generation, public water supply, and fisheries. Farmers and foresters are bracing for 2008 while hoping for a forecast of significant rainfall.

Every county in South Carolina except Jasper and Beaufort remain under severe drought conditions — the second most intense category reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"As a farmer, I've been through several droughts," Weathers said, "but I’m optimistic that relief will come soon.”

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