An unexpectedly severe drought joined forces this summer with a relentless heat wave that is knocking many South Carolina farmers off their feet.
The dry, hot conditions appeared suddenly and then stubbornly refused to go away, withering crops in large swaths of the state. Corn has already taken a beating — and poor harvests of cotton, sorghum, soybeans and peanuts are next in line. Even farmers who were able to irrigate on a regular basis are experiencing substantial drops in yield, while some dryland farmers have lost entire crops.
“Growers are really on the edge,” said John Mueller, director of Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville. “Drought and heat together is a worst-case scenario. And many areas of the state have had far too much of both.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 35 counties in South Carolina primary natural disaster areas due to damages and losses caused by the brutal drought conditions. Ten other contiguous counties also qualify. The USDA declaration will provide low-interest loans to help farmers offset losses that crop insurance might not cover. They have eight months to apply for the loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
“Our hearts go out to those South Carolina farmers and ranchers affected by recent natural disasters,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, in a news release. “We’re also telling South Carolina producers that USDA stands with you and your communities when severe weather and natural disasters threaten to disrupt your livelihood.”
Not only has this summer’s weather been harsh, it has also been erratic. For instance, Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport recorded its third driest summer in the past 53 years, with just 6.96 inches of rain. Meanwhile, the Charleston area had its 13th wettest summer at 26.63 inches. Still, most areas of the state leaned heavily toward the dry side.
“Summer rainfall is normally the greatest — but also the most variable — occurring primarily in connection with localized showers and thunderstorms,” said Hope Mizzell, state climatologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “However, a deep-layered high-pressure ridge dominated this summer, leading to above-normal temperatures and suppressed thunderstorm formation.
“There were heavy showers this summer, such as the 3.39 inches that fell in one hour near Lake Murray Dam or the 7.24-inch downpour that flooded Charleston in 24 hours. But those events were isolated,” she said. “We call this kind of drought a ‘flash drought,’ because unlike most droughts, which begin slowly and are slow to end, flash droughts rise quickly from the combination of high heat and dry conditions.”
This summer, extreme became the norm. Columbia had 17 days when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees, the highest number since 1993.
“And it wasn’t just Columbia,” said David DeWitt, Clemson Extension’s area row crop agent for Lee, Sumter and Kershaw counties. “Heat was a problem pretty much everywhere. With all these 100-degree days, it’s hard to make a crop. Corn is trying to pollinate. Cotton is trying to hold onto its blooms. When the heat is that intense and there are no rain showers to cool things off a bit, it’s just amazing that the plants are able to survive at all, much less produce anything.”
It is ironic that this summer’s dry conditions were immediately preceded by a period of above-average rainfall. It was as if the drought, well, fell from the sky.
The worst in 15 years
“We had a wet winter that extended into March and April,” DeWitt said. “In fact, it was so wet, a lot of our corn acreage didn’t even get planted. And then we came to the end of April and the rain just stopped. In Darlington, Lee and Sumter counties, we received no rain — that’s zero tenths — from April 22 all the way through June.
“This is probably as widespread of a drought as we’ve had in more than 15 years,” he said. “And it’s had an unusual feel. Scattered pockets have received rain, but it’s as if Mother Nature drew lines that the rain couldn’t cross. I’ve had farmers tell me that one side of their field got rain and the other side didn’t. They’re looking at 600 pounds of cotton per acre on one end and 200 pounds on the other.”
As if this weren’t bad enough, commodity prices for most crops are way down this year. And the few growers who managed to produce yields of relatively high quantity are likely to see decreases in the quality of some of their crops, as well.
“With cotton, excessive heat reduces fiber quality as well as yield,” said Mike Jones, Extension’s statewide cotton specialist and an associate professor of agronomy at Clemson. “The plants are under stress and don’t grow like they’re supposed to. They’re trying to conserve moisture and don’t absorb enough nutrients. The bolls don’t open properly, which makes the crop really difficult to harvest. Plus, a lot of cotton drops to the ground, where it can’t be picked up. Growers are going to be leaving a lot of cotton out there. It’s not an ideal situation, to say the least.”
“Peanuts are really suffering, too,” DeWitt said. “Over the past few years, farmers have been averaging about two tons. This year we’re looking at some that will average less than a ton. And the dry, hot weather also introduces diseases and insect pressure that we wouldn’t have in a normal year, which further reduces yield. There’s just no way around it. Bad weather makes everything more difficult.”
To make matters worse, another potential problem is looming like a dark cloud. The climate phenomenon called El Niño, which is predicted to be unusually severe from late autumn through Spring 2016, is set to arrive at least a day late and a dollar short. The widespread effects of El Niño, which result from warming of tropical portions of the eastern Pacific Ocean, typically reduce the severity of hurricane season, but increase the winter and spring rainfall in the Carolinas. Though this would wash away any remnants of the drought, it could also induce heavy downpours that would hamper some of 2015’s remaining harvests.
“Farmers should be aware that if a window of opportunity opens to harvest, they should go ahead and do it,” said Jose Payero, Extension’s statewide irrigation specialist. “They shouldn’t sit around and wait, because excessive rainfall from El Niño could close the window for good.”