Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Local farmers share their stories in the wake of the October flood and subsequent rains in November that have left their fields too saturated to harvest their crops.
Herbie Brown moves a shovel of earth from his 75-acre field to reveal a cluster of sweet potatoes. He scoops up two potatoes; rotting wads and the heavy odor of their demise are all that’s left after the October flood. On this day in November he watches more rains saturate already soaked fields.
Brown is a third generation farmer who farms about 4,000 acres of wheat, corn, peas sweet potatoes and peanuts. He estimates 75 percent of his cotton, sweet potato crops and 40 percent of his peanut crop is lost. “We still have some we haven’t dug and don’t know when we’ll get back to harvest them.” Brown said green peanuts and sweet potatoes are not insurable. He and most local farmers have never experienced weather like this. “We’ve had over 30 inches of rain in 30 days,” said Brown. “It’s bad.” He said he’ll turn his loses to Federal Crop Insurance but he isn’t optimistic. “There’s no way you can survive off that. It will hardly pay what you got in the crop. You can only hope the banks will go along with us and finance us again.”
Standing in his 35-acre field, Mark Scott picks up a cotton bole from the wet ground. He pulls the white fibers apart to expose a seed. A tiny white appendage reaches out from the seed. “There’s no weight there, so you’re not going to get anything for that,” he says of the premature sprout. “You put a seed in damp dirt it’s going to get up, same as cotton. If it stays wet for days - if it never dries out that’s what going to happen.” He gently shakes a plant and boles fall to the ground. The cotton picker will miss those boles, along with hundreds that already lay on the ground.
Before the historic flood that decimated thousands of acres throughout the state, he was looking at 1,200-pound cotton per acre. He now estimates a third of his crop is gone. “Now you can take 300 pounds - maybe even 400 pounds that’s going to be on the ground that we’re not going to pick.”
Scott is a second-generation farmer. He and son, Gordon, farm 2,000 acres of corn, peanuts, soybeans and cotton. When the cotton is ginned the farmer sells the seed and lint. The seed Scott says nearly pays for the ginning. “If the seeds good, this is going to be light.” As more rains come in November, Scott’s hope of salvaging what’s left has been dashed. “I don’t know,” said Scott gazing over the muck and broken branches. “We might all be looking for different jobs.”
Marty Easler is one of Williamsburg County’s largest farmers. He stands in a muddy peanut field. Easler pulls a plant from the ground and shakes off the dirt. Peanuts fall to the ground by the dozen. “See how the peanuts are on the ground. When you dig them up they stay down there,” said Easler of what was to be a bumper crop. “Those are the best peanuts. We should have been digging them two weeks ago but it was raining.” If he harvests anything it will be small - and light - immature peanuts. “While we’re gathering - we’re maybe getting only half of the peanuts, we’re losing more than half of the good peanuts’ weight. So we’re only going to get about a third of the crop.”
Easler, who farms with several family members, said this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. He added that loans aren’t the answer. “Our problem now is we’re trying to pay our loan back. You can’t borrow yourself out of debt.” Easler said overall he has a $1 million invested in his crops. “All our money is sitting in the field and we’re not going to be able to get it.” He said it is in a farmer’s nature to salvage their crops.
He estimates he will salvage about $600,000 (of the million investment) out of his crops but he will spend $100,000 in expenses to do so. ‘That is fuel, labor, chemical, trucks running up and down the road, employees and parts. I could leave it in the field - save that $100,000 but I’m going to spend that $100,000 and get $600,000.”
Easler said he knows they can get a low interest loan but argues that route is not the way to go. “It’s hard to borrow yourself into prosperity,” he said. Easler’s crop counselor Dawn White agreed, adding don’t be surprised if many farmers don’t make it. “Don’t be surprise if you see foreclosures and bankruptcies everywhere,” she said. “There were many that were in a hole coming into this year. They pretty much had to beg, plead, put their house up - whatever they had to do to get their loan to operate this year, that’s monies spent.”
Farming in Williamsburg County
A 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture county profile shows Williamsburg County consists of 679 farms. Williamsburg ranks in the top 10 among the 46 counties for (acres) soybeans, cotton and upland cotton, and corn for grain. Crop sales in 2012 were $61,811 or 83 percent of market value of products sold.