Originally created 06/02/01

Hodges seeks aid for fruit farms



South Carolina fruit producers who lost crops to frost and freezing temperatures earlier this year might get some relief from the federal government.

Gov. Jim Hodges requested Friday that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman designate Aiken, Edgefield, Saluda and three other South Carolina counties as disaster areas because of crop losses resulting from March and April frosts and freezes.

"The extreme temperatures our state experienced late this winter have severely damaged much of this year's fruit crop in South Carolina," the governor said. "Many of our farmers have lost almost half of their crops."

Peach, apple and other fruit producers in the Ridge - a fertile growing area that includes Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda - and in Spartanburg, Cherokee and York counties lost more than 40 percent of their crops because of low temperatures March 6-8, March 27-28 and April 17-18.

If Ms. Veneman makes the disaster declaration, low interest emergency loans will be available to producers.

"Our farmers need these low-interest loans to help offset some of the effects of the disaster," Mr. Hodges said.

The governor's office mailed the letter requesting relief to the Agriculture secretary Friday and expects a response in the next few weeks, officials said.

The late frost had more damaging effects than the drought, peach producers said, because most large peach farms have irrigation systems running almost all the time.

Sonny Yonce, co-owner of J.W. Yonce and Sons Farms in Johnston, estimates a loss of as much as 70 percent of certain varieties. The farms grow as many as 25 varieties of peaches that typically are ready for picking from mid-May to the end of August. Trees that were in bloom during the frost were damaged more than later-blooming ones.

"We had a late, spring frost that thinned the crop significantly," said Lewis Holmes, the owner of Lewis Holmes Farms in Johnston. "What peaches we've got seem to have good size. They are fairly good size for this time of year despite the drought. We just don't have enough."

All of the early harvest numbers are low, but they are expected to rise as the less-affected varieties bear fruit later in the summer, Mr. Yonce said. Farmers are still unsure what to expect in the end harvest.

If J.W. Yonce and Sons Farms comes out on the losing end this fall, they won't look to the government for any relief, spokesman Larry Yonce said. The Department of Agriculture has an exclusion clause that prohibits growers with gross sales of more than $2.5 million from getting low-interest loans, he said.

"The three largest growers in Edgefield, Aiken and Saluda counties do not qualify for any of this government assistance because the sales exceed the government limitation," Mr. Yonce said.

The amount of relief is based on sales receipts from the previous year, not the disaster year, Mr. Yonce said.

"It doesn't make sense," he said. "They should go by net income. All of us are family farms, and we're all in the same boat. It's just a matter that some are larger than others.

"We hope it helps the smaller growers - helps someone who needs it. But it's sort of discriminatory."

Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.

Peach facts

South Carolina ships about 2,500 tractor-trailer loads of peaches per year.

More than 40 percent of the 2,500 tractor-trailer loads of peaches - or 1,000 loads - come from the Ridge - a fertile growing area that stretches from Edgefield to Batesburg.

Each load contains about 1,540 half-bushel boxes of peaches - with a value of about $15 per box, or about $23,000 per load.

Peaches are a $23 million industry in the Ridge area.

Source: Greg Henderson, Clemson extension agent for the Ridge