Originally created 04/14/02

Mixed crops help farms cope



PELZER, S.C. - Dairy farmer Tom Trantham worried last summer that the continuing drought would scorch his fields, leaving him too little hay for his cattle. At $2,500 a truckload, he didn't have enough money to buy the feed.

Mother Nature came through with some late season rains, though, leaving the Greenville County farmer angrier about low milk prices than poor crop yields.

After four years of drought in South Carolina, streams have reached record lows and wells are running dry, but many farmers have been able to get by, thanks to just enough rain at the right time. Many are diversifying, so if one crop is burned up by drought, they will have others to fall back on.

"I just about lost everything in 1986," said Mr. Trantham, who relied on hay donated from Texas farms to survive that hot, dry summer. "From that point on, I said I'd never be in a position where a drought could completely wipe me out again."

As farmers again plant their spring crops, they'll take the warmer and drier than normal conditions predicted through June, as long as they get some rain when needed, as they did last year.

"We had one of the best corn crops in years," state Agriculture Department spokesman Wayne Mack said. "But if we would have missed that inch, inch-and-a-half of rain we got at the right time, we would have lost half the crop."

Indeed, last year's corn harvest was up 42 percent from 2000, with growers harvesting a record 108 bushels per acre, according to the state Agricultural Statistics Service. Cotton and peanut production also was up sharply, although the soybean crop, which suffered a late-season dry spell, was down.

Still, the drought is affecting wells and streams - nearly 70 percent of the streams statewide had near-record low flows at the end of March, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

Rainfall is again several inches below normal this year, and some places are as much as 50 inches below normal since the drought began.