Originally created 01/07/01

Farmers steel for drought



AIKEN - Carl Brown Jr. can't stand to hear "that word" anymore.

It stings worse than the fire ants that are as much a part of the Southern landscape as the cotton and corn that farmers plant each year. But on Friday afternoon, sitting in his Chevy 4x4 that shielded him from westerly wind gusts of 21 mph, Mr. Brown heard "that word" again.

Drought.

He said he didn't want to talk about it. But when he got started, he couldn't stop.

"The weatherman said it wouldn't rain in 2000, and I planted, anyway," Mr. Brown said. "If you're going to farm, you've got to farm. ... There's no doing it halfway."

State climatologist Mike Helfert says to expect more of the same in 2001, and more of the same is too familiar to Mr. Brown after three years of drought. But predictions of another hot, dry year won't stop him from planting a crop of cotton and corn. He's done it since the late 1970s, dry weather or not.

It didn't rain in 2000, and the year ended with a December that brought only 0.97 inches of precipitation. Readings from the National Weather Service show that last month was the eighth driest since 1915. And 2000 was the fifth driest year since Harry S. Truman, whose family farmed in Missouri, was elected the 33rd president in 1948.

Only 36 inches of rain fell over South Carolina last year, nearly 14 inches below normal.

Mr. Helfert told the state Land Water and Conservation Advisory Committee earlier this week, "I'm really leery of giving you good news I don't believe in."

Farmers might see a little wet weather this month and next, but it won't amount to much, Mr. Helfert said. And it won't be nearly enough to swell the state's streams and aquifers to where they need to be. That would take 18 inches of rain by mid-March.

"If not, we'll have awfully dry streams this year," said Rod Cherry of the Department of Natural Resources. If the predictions of another hot summer pan out, those water levels will drop even faster, he said.

To all that, Mr. Brown responds, "Weather is a funny thing. And there's nothing anybody can do about it."

Mr. Brown said being optimistic goes with the territory of being a farmer.

"All we can do is hope," he said. "One year, it'll get better. If I say that long enough, it will."

But for the past three years, little or no water has meant lower yields and higher production costs. Commodity prices haven't been good, either.

That's because the international market has been flooded with bumper crops from other countries while the South continues to swelter and can't compete. And in the Midwest, where most of this country's corn is grown, 2000 gave farmers one of their best seasons in recent years, which brought prices in South Carolina to less than $2 a bushel.

On Friday, Mr. Brown watched as his cotton picker crept through a 27-acre field just off U.S. Highway 78. He'll be lucky to "make" two-thirds of a bale to the acre at this tract, nowhere near the two bales per acre he'd harvest in the right weather with the right rainfall.

A late freeze stunted most of the crop.

It's the kind of complaint that can travel far in an age when farmers' woes are political fodder.

While food and agricultural issues hardly rated a mention during the campaign, they threaten to cause some headaches for President-elect Bush and his new agriculture secretary.

The 107th Congress began work last week, and soon politicians will begin rewriting a farm bill that expires in 2002. The farm bill that took effect in 1996 was designed to phase out government-support programs. But a sharp decline in commodity prices two years ago made that politically impossible.

Closer to home, Rep. Charles R. Sharpe, R-Wagener, himself a farmer, will fight for a bill that would let farmers keep their land a "priority agricultural area" and still benefit from rising land values that might otherwise tempt them to sell. That means property owners would sell development rights to the state or local government, which would agree to protect it from builders. That way, the land could always be farmed.

"The poor farmer has got to have some help," Mr. Sharpe said. "We're not going to have anything left to farm if something isn't done, and fast."

Strip malls and concrete are covering South Carolina's prime farmland. Aiken County has just 134,069 acres of farmland left. The acreage is divided among 729 farms, which means they're almost all small plots.

The South Carolina Farm Bureau is behind Mr. Sharpe's bill, and Congress is expected to take up a similar proposal by Tom Harkin, a three-term senator from Arkansas.

"Unfortunately, prime farmland is prime development land," said Clemson Extension Agent Terry Mathis.

Take Aiken's southside, which used to be some of the best farmland in the county. When the Aiken Mall was built, a dairy and corn farm were covered over. Kmart brought the same result.

"Unfortunately, many people think the food they eat grows on grocery store shelves," said Buddy Jennings of the Farm Bureau. "If we don't get some kind of relief, there isn't going to be any food to fill those shelves."

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.