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After dry winter, South Carolina farmers hope for rain as planting season nears

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BOWMAN, S.C. — South Carolina’s warm, dry winter and spring was great for golfers and tourism, but not so much for farmers with another growing season at hand after last year’s hot, dry summer.

Landy Weathers discusses a new irrigation unit on the 2,000-acre farm he runs with his brother, South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, in Bowman, S.C. With all of South Carolina in a drought, Landy Weathers says while irrigation can help, it can't make up for needed rainfall.  BRUCE SMITH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
BRUCE SMITH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Landy Weathers discusses a new irrigation unit on the 2,000-acre farm he runs with his brother, South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, in Bowman, S.C. With all of South Carolina in a drought, Landy Weathers says while irrigation can help, it can't make up for needed rainfall.

“I think we started out with kind of an empty bucket. We started out a little bit behind the eight ball,” said Landy Weathers, who farms 2,000 acres in Orangeburg County.

All of South Carolina is in a moderate drought with six counties along the upper Savannah River – Oconee, Pickens, Anderson, Abbeville, McCormick and Edgefield – considered to be in a severe drought.

Lake Hartwell in the state’s northwestern corner is well below its banks, and rainfall in Greenville for the year is 4 inches below normal. It’s been 5 inches below normal in Columbia and about 2 inches below in Charleston, according to the National Weather Service.

There has been little rain to replenish ground water after last year’s hot, dry summer. The warm winter meant trees greened up sooner, sucking water from the water table earlier than usual. With farmers preparing to plant cotton, soybeans and peanuts in the coming weeks, growers could use the rain.

“Every farmer I know says, ‘Give me an inch a week,’” said John Muller, the director of the Clemson University Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, S.C. “We’re really worried about moisture and temperatures down the road.”

Weathers, who runs his farm with his brother, state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, said the warm winter and spring could cause other problems for crops. At the farm, the wheat is ripening and tiny corn plants have been laid out in rows reaching toward the tree lines.

The brothers also grow soybeans, cotton and peanuts, and lease the dairy operation on their land to another farmer.

But Weathers said many farmers in the state are better able to deal with drought than they were a decade ago. Many growers in the flatter land between the Midlands and the coast have invested in field irrigation systems.

The systems, which can cost as much as $100,000 apiece, slowly rotate through fields while spraying water on thirsty crops.

The newer ones are computerized and can be programmed to alter the water flow to match the needs of the crop and soil types beneath. They can also be controlled with smartphones. Weathers can turn his on or adjust it from anywhere, and there’s no need to lose crop space by building a road to a control station in the center of the field.

“This type of technology allows us to conserve water,” he said. “But if you have a severe drought, there is no way you can irrigate enough to replace Mother Nature. You need rain as well.”

“I remember years when we didn’t have to run them any. The last two years, you hardly ever turned them off,” he said as he demonstrated his system. “This is like insurance, you hope you never use it.”

There was little rainfall this winter, a crucial time for replenishing groundwater, said Charles Davis, the extension agent for Orangeburg and Calhoun counties.

The National Weather Service forecast indicates the next chance of rain in the state is a slight chance next Wednesday. South Carolina’s Drought Response Committee meets April 25 to discuss the situation.

If there is some good news, the weather service’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting some improvement in the drought conditions in the western two-thirds of the state by the end of June, although dry conditions are expected to continue along the coast.

Weathers is also looking for improvement.

“I would say it’s going to be a little drier than normal but not as dry as last summer,” he said. “I’m an optimist, but you can’t be a farmer without being an optimist.”


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