Originally created 08/07/99

Farmers still waiting



No one is out of the woods yet -- certainly not the people in the fields.

Area farmers may have dodged a bullet when summer's arid weather was broken by fits of rain several weeks ago, but the searing, triple-digit heat that followed the showers has them holding their collective breath again.

The next two weeks are crucial to row crops -- particularly cotton -- and without rain, farmers could face the same disastrous conditions they did last year, when useless plants in scorched fields were harrowed under.

The National Weather Service isn't expecting a break in the weather any time soon. The only rain forecast for the next week is scattered thundershowers.

"We're probably looking at a desperate situation," said Bobby Smith, who, with his brother Andy farms 5,000 acres in Screven County. "We're probably losing about half the crop. Some places, where it's been the driest, are just about at the point of no return."

The Smiths, who farm cotton, soybeans and peanuts -- all the crops being hit the hardest in the current hot weather -- are expecting a drop of 250 to 300 pounds of cotton per acre. The plants have paled and are beginning to lose their fruit, which would have developed into fluffy cotton bolls.

The rains that broke the earlier dry spell and turned dry fields green for a time were almost immediately sucked down into the parched subsoil, leaving no reserves for the plants.

The hot sun and temperatures that have reached more than 100 degrees have seared the plants, even on farms with irrigation.

The rains may have saved corn crops that seemed doomed, and peaches are still in good condition. About 73 percent of the peaches in South Carolina have already been harvested, according to the state crop report.

That wouldn't have happened without a break in the drought, said Sonny Yonce, who with his brother Larry runs J.W. Yonce and Sons farm operations in Johnston.

"We started off with a drought that hurt our volume some in the beginning, but then had some thunderstorms and rain that alleviated the drought to a certain extent," he said. "The heat lately has been tough on peaches and people, but we're in the final phase of our season and can't say we're unhappy with the volume or the quality."

Lewis Holmes III, a third-generation grower in Edgefield County, said rain would help complete the harvest cycle, but showers wouldn't correct the damage already done by blistering heat.

But dry weather does improve the sweetness of the fruit, he said.

It doesn't do much for livestock, who may stop eating -- if there's enough pasture grass left to eat -- and producing milk.

Some cattle farmers in McDuffie County are feeding their stock hay normally saved for winter. The rain produced at least one cutting of hay for many, but they need two or three more cuttings to make it through the winter, and time is running out, said Frank Watson, an agent with the Cooperative Extension Service.

"The problem is going to be whether there's enough to carry them through the winter," he said.

Complicating the drought are low market prices, caused by the economic crisis in Asia. Because Asia isn't buying, commodities prices have dropped to their lowest in 25 years, despite the scarcity of goods.

"Every commodity we produce is selling below production cost," Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said. "There's no end in sight to the problem agriculture is facing. We've just got an awful sad situation in rural America."

Staff Writer Chasiti Kirkland contributed to this article.

Alisa DeMao can be reached at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.