YORK, S.C. - Every itch of his chigger bites reminds Investigator Rayford Ervin Jr. why 2003 has been a banner year for the illicit marijuana crop in the pastures of rural York County.
What's been good for the pesky chigger - bountiful spring and summer rains after years of drought - also has been good for people who grow marijuana deep in the fields that back up to bustling Charlotte, N.C.
"To grow marijuana, you've got to have sunlight, water, fertilizer and what we call tender loving care," said Investigator Ervin, part of a York County task force that has seized 8,400 pot plants, with a street value of more than $21 million, so far this year.
Those numbers shatter previous yearly records - and there's still a few months left in the growing season.
From Maine to West Virginia to South Carolina, police are reporting bumper marijuana crops in some areas.
Good growing weather was cited as part of the reason why West Virginia authorities already have seized double the amount of marijuana found last year. Authorities seized about 30,000 plants just in July, which was nearly equal to the amount of marijuana taken from fields in all of 2002. For the year, about 70,000 plants have been taken from what officials call "West Virginia's No. 1 cash crop."
"We've always been notorious for growing a lot of marijuana," said Sgt. Jay Powers, a state police spokesman. "That's why we try so hard to get rid of it."
But the frequent summer downpours have proved to be too much of a good thing for some growers. South Carolina agents haven't seen a dramatic jump in seized marijuana plants statewide, and some have reported crops stunted by too much rain.
So far this year, South Carolina's State Law Enforcement Division has seized nearly 13,000 marijuana plants across the state.
Late last month, Aiken County sheriff's deputies and agents from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division seized 6 to 10 pounds of marijuana in a raid in the northeastern part of the county. Earlier in the month, sheriff's deputies and SLED agents found nearly 600 marijuana plants growing in a yard in Windsor.
"I think that the rainy spring and summer we've had has had an impact on finding more marijuana throughout the state," Aiken County Sheriff Mike Hunt said. "But I also believe that the counties that have a high amount of seizures just have an aggressive eradication program. Dope's like everything else - if you don't work it, you don't seize it."
SLED Chief Robert Stewart doesn't know why York County has accounted for about two-thirds of the marijuana seized this year.
Marijuana fields are spread throughout York County, from the rural western areas to some small pastures in the far eastern section of the county that border suburban sprawl.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game. We find it, they try to hide it better," Investigator Ervin said. "But in the end, we're just going to keep finding it and keep taking it away."
Staff Writer Stephen Gurr contributed to this story.
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