Just when things were looking promising for farmers in most areas of the state, another dry and wicked heat wave has a hold on South Carolina and is starting to squeeze the life out of crops.
The same conditions that have been plaguing South Carolina’s northwest corner for several weeks have now leapfrogged into its center, leaving the Pee Dee region as one of the few that has escaped relatively unscathed. Meanwhile, Oconee, Pickens and Anderson counties have played the unenviable role of “ground zero.”
“We’re looking at the initial phases of a drought that could last into late August from what I’m seeing,” said Mark Malsick, severe weather liaison for the South Carolina Climate Office in Columbia. “The models have done a 180, and a ridge has formed overhead that started a couple of days before the first week of July. This is a large-scale pattern that is flirting with a La Nina event in the Pacific, which tends to make the Southeast drier and hotter for potentially long stretches. This week has been the worst for us, but I don’t see big changes happening next week, either.”
Malsick said that the S.C. State Climate Office, which is a division of S.C. Department of Natural Resources, will have its first drought meeting at 1 p.m. Friday in Columbia to evaluate reports coming from the field and to decide what responses might be put into place.
“Through August, at least, it’s looking like large portions of the state could be facing a situation with very little rain and temperatures in the low to mid-90s,” Malsick said. “The other kicker is that it’s so warm, we’re seeing record high low temperatures in the mornings — approaching 80 degrees — which rob soil of even more moisture.”
In 2015, a sledgehammer of heat and drought followed by a deluge of record rainfall devastated thousands of acres of crops and left many of the state’s farmers with shattered hopes and empty wallets. Entering 2016, growers had tough decisions to make, often working with limited budgets in an attempt to rebound from the previous year’s calamities. So the timing of this latest event has the potential to be yet another punch to the gut.
“In many parts of the state, the situation is deteriorating rapidly,” said John Mueller, director of Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville. “With prolonged intense heat, anything that isn’t heavily irrigated is in trouble. And don’t forget, water isn’t free. Whether or not it’s saving crops, irrigation is costing growers a lot of money.”
In the upstate, hundreds of acres of dryland corn that looked fabulous just three or four weeks ago have burned up, and nearly all the Upstate’s corn acreage has seen significant reductions in yield.
“Our corner of South Carolina has been hit hardest of all,” said Christopher Ray, director of Clemson University’s Experiment Station. “The Pee Dee area has probably fared the best thus far, which is ironic considering it fared the worst last year. But statewide, the picture is not rosy at this time. If temperatures were to moderate and rains were to return, a lot could still be salvaged. But, sadly, some of the damage has already been done.”
Depending on the weather over the next six weeks, what had been a promising year — in terms of yield — could have another disastrous ending if the dry heat lingers across the state. Or it could have a relatively happy ending if temperatures and rainfall return to more manageable levels.
All is not lost yet. This year’s corn harvest still has the potential to produce above-average quantities. Watermelon harvests are almost complete, and though yields are down, the quality is up. But cotton, peanuts and soybeans, which were doing well just a short time ago, are currently facing the prospect of serious consequences in many areas.
How some of South Carolina's major crops are faring
Typical plantings: mid-March through late April
Typical harvests: late July through August
Last year’s wicked summer drought laid waste to much of South Carolina’s corn crop. But this year’s crop has the potential to be above average in some areas if the weather will get its act together before it’s too late. Irrigated corn had been thriving across the state. Dryland corn had been doing well in many areas, but is now struggling statewide and has been crushed in the Upstate. Also, an outbreak of Southern corn rust hasn’t helped matters, though at least it appears to be spreading slowly and not causing too much harm.
“We’re on third base, but we haven’t made it home,” said David Gunter, Extension’s feed grain specialist who is based at Edisto REC. “But as long as the guys put the hammer down on water and fungicides, they should have some pretty good-looking corn, assuming it doesn’t stay too hot for too long.”
Typical plantings (for summer crop): late March through mid-April
Typical harvests: most of June
For the most part, watermelons escaped the wrath of 2015. There were two reasons for this: Harvest was completed before the worst of the heat struck; and the drought wrought little damage because virtually all commercial acreage is drip-irrigated. In fact, dry conditions with moderate temperatures are preferred by watermelon growers. Thus far this year, summer yields have been lower than in 2015, but commodity prices are relatively good. However, unexpected instances of squash bug infestations and downy mildew caught growers off guard and caused significant damage in some fields.
“Overall, the crop still looks pretty good,” said Gilbert Miller, Extension horticulture specialist who is based at Edisto REC. “As of now, the prices are around 16 cents a pound, which is decent. The melons are a little bit smaller, which is not necessarily a problem. Most often, the buyers want a 14- to 16-pound melon, which are the most popular. Last year, the melons were larger because we had a warmer spring and they ripened faster.”
Plantings of the fall crop of watermelons began at the end of June and continued into early July, with harvests in early to mid-September. This crop would suffer greatly if the heat wave and dry spell refuse to dissipate.
Typical plantings: late April through mid-May
Typical harvests: September through October
Until the recent heat wave, it was looking like peanut growers would enjoy an above-average harvest this year. Dry conditions during the planting season didn’t have much of a negative impact. And though tropical storm Bonnie dumped up to 13 inches of rain on some parts of the state during Memorial Day weekend, most of the peanut crop did not suffer significant damage because of it.
“We have been doing pretty good,” said Dan Anco, Extension peanut specialist who is based at Edisto REC. “But some areas have had higher-than-usual damage from thrips and virus pressure. So we’ll see how this unfolds as the season goes on. Most of our growers have really good practices for controlling those problems. Still, a prolonged heatwave could add more uphill travelling for the rest of the season.”
Typical plantings: late April to mid-May
Typical harvests: October-November
Cotton is right where it needs to be at this point, but the most important growth period occurs in July and August, which is when cotton is most vulnerable to insects, disease and weather conditions, so growers will have to stay on their toes. If temperatures moderate and rainfall returns to normal levels, the potential still exists for above-average yields.
“Farmers don’t like to talk about what hasn’t been put in the barn yet, but it’s fair to say that cotton has been coming along nicely. We couldn’t have asked for a better start,” said David DeWitt, Clemson Extension’s area row crop agent for Lee, Sumter and Kershaw counties. “And cotton can withstand heat and drought better than a lot of other crops. But there’s still a long way to go.”
Typical plantings: mid-May through mid-June
Typical harvests: October-November
Like cotton, soybeans are still in the relatively early stages of development. But like all crops harvested in the fall, soybeans will crash and burn if the heat wave persists unabated.
“They’re young, but we’ve got good stands, especially the stands planted early,” Gunter said. “Some later plantings have already been damaged by the heat and lack of rain. The main thing right now is to control the weeds. But overall, the potential exists for an above-average soybean harvest. So fingers are crossed and all eyes are on the sky.”
Roller-coaster commodity prices for many crops — with exceptions, such as watermelons, peanuts and soybeans — have settled into a disappointingly low rut. In some cases, prices are down more than 10 percent from what they were in 2013. Across the nation, planted acreage for row crops is up 5 million acres from last year, which has further dampened prices by increasing supply.
“Overall, prices are low, so growers will need to have better-than-average yields to make money,” said Nathan Smith, Extension economist who is based at Sandhill Research and Education Center in Columbia. “They will have a hard time just paying expenses with average yields. And the outlook is for low prices the rest of this season.”
South Carolina’s acreage in principal crops is at 1.54 million, which is 84,000 fewer acres than in 2015. Meanwhile, production costs have remained pretty much the same, which means growers are spending as much money as they used to while not making as much.
“Many farmers are struggling financially and trying to get this year’s crop out on a shoestring budget,” DeWitt said. “Management has been the biggest key this year – trying to figure out how to do things that they know need to be done, yet not tying up as much money doing it. There are growers just now getting operating loans, so they’re trying to get through 2016 on a wing and a prayer.”