Originally created 05/28/98

Farmers search for relief from weather's extremes



COLUMBIA -- First it was nonstop rain. But now, that wet weather looks good to farmers, golf course attendants and others across South Carolina who said Wednesday they need more water.

"It was a terrible amount of rain and we couldn't keep up with the work until two weeks ago," said Cowpens peach farmer Kline Cash. "Then it just cut off."

With less than half the normal rainfall for May, crops like corn, watermelons and soybeans are starting to feel the heat -- in the 90s in many of the state's cities with humidity pushing that close to feeling like 100 degrees in some cases, the National Weather Service said.

Many farmers have stopped planting until rain brings relief, said Jim Thomas, a Clemson agricultural extension agent for Allendale County.

"What's really compounded it is our above-average temperatures we've been having and the warm breezes that tend to dry out soils," Mr. Thomas said. "Anybody who has the means to irrigate is in the process of irrigating, but that's only a fraction of the cultivated land."

Some of South Carolina's farms, soaked just weeks ago, now need the moisture. The Agricultural Statistics Service said Monday that more than a third of the state's acreage was short or very short of moisture.

Columbia's last rainfall was May 11 -- just a hundredth of an inch, said National Weather Service forecaster Jeff Linton. In a month when the average rainfall is almost 3 inches, just 1.7 inches of rain has fallen since May 1, he said. Rain is not likely again in Columbia until next week, the weather service said.

Even coastal areas that normally get cooler sea breezes have suffered.

Daytime temperatures have been above 90 degrees since May 20 on Hilton Head Island, and humidity has sent the heat index soaring toward 100 degrees.

Some coastal areas got relief from Wednesday afternoon thunderstorms, but that still just brought four-hundredths of an inch to Charleston, the weather service said.

At Snee Farm Country Club in Charleston, it just added a little more water to the lake for irrigation, said assistant superintendent Chuck Bolton.

Some rain fell in the Upstate, too, but so far May's total at Greenville is barely 1 1/2 inches, or more than 2 inches below normal.

Less than a month ago, farmers were blaming an onslaught of storms for drowning winter crops and delaying spring planting and fertilizing.

"We went from one extreme to the other," said John Oxner, extension agent for Lexington and Richland counties. "We went from the cool, wet conditions to where farmers couldn't get into the field. Now it's hot and dry and the corn is starting to twist and roll."

Plants, grass, the elderly and people without air conditioning all are suffering.

"We have to water about eight hours a day all day," said Ralph Cooper, an owner of Cooper's Nursery in Columbia. `It's awfully hard to keep up with. We're just watering continuously."

High pressure systems stalled south of the state are to blame, while westerly dry winds have cut off moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, the weather service said.

As for the rest of the summer, here's the prediction: Hotter and drier than normal.