Originally created 03/03/98

El Nino costs consumers, farmers in S.C.



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Consumers and farmers alike will pay for El Nino-driven storms that have dumped more than 17 inches of rain on the Lowcountry during the past two months.

Produce prices have increased, cotton and wheat fields are inundated and lumber prices have climbed 10 percent because loggers cannot get into soggy forests.

"It's been a terrible time for us," said Jerry Smoak, whose Toogoodoo Farms on Yonge's Island grows 250 acres of vegetables.

Smoak and dozens of other Lowcountry farmers who saw their winter crops drowned by record rain have delayed planting and fertilizing because of wet fields.

The more than 17 inches of rain in Charleston this year is almost three times normal.

And the bad weather here and on the West Coast is being felt at the supermarket.

"Vegetable costs are going to skyrocket this spring," said Dale Linvill, an agricultural meteorologist with Clemson University.

"We're seeing higher prices now and we're going to continue to see them for the next three to four months," agreed Shawn Reese, produce manager at Harris Teeter's downtown store.

A pint of strawberries sells for $4 or more, compared with $2.99 a year ago, Reese said. Tomatoes go for $2.49 a pound, up 90 cents from last year.

Local produce won't bring down prices because more than half of the area's leafy crop such as kale, cabbages and collards are damaged or a total loss, said Clemson extension agent Roger Francis.

Statewide, some wheat fields are still under water and some cotton has simply been abandoned in the fields.

Consumers are also paying more for lumber. Southern pine prices are up as much as 10 percent as demand exceeds supply at the start of the spring construction season. Westvaco's lumber mill in Cameron shut down for two weeks last month because of a shortage of timber.

"There's standing water three feet deep in the woods," said lumber supplier Grayson Carter III. "All this water is wreaking havoc."

Construction projects have also bogged down. The $28 million bridge project and widening of U.S. Highway 52 is in slow motion because of deep water in the swamps around the Santee River.

Even the seafood business is affected.

Runoff from heavy rains forced the closure of about half the shellfish beds near McClellanville, said Rutledge Leland, owner of Carolina Seafood Inc. in McClellanville.

"It's hard to put a dollar on how much we've lost, but thousands of dollars have been taken out of this little economy," he said.