South Carolina Farmers Struggle After Back-To-Back Seasons Of Bad Weather

May 16, 2016
Originally published on May 16, 2016 7:26 pm
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Farmers across the country aren't expected to make as much money this year. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts they'll make half as much as they did in 2013. Alexandra Olgin of South Carolina Public Radio takes us to one part of that state, where agriculture makes up a large part of the economy. And people there are worried.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: Farming is all Jamie Burgess knows. He's worked this same land since kindergarten.

JAMIE BURGESS: I've been driving a tractor since I was 6 years old. My dad used to get me out of school to drive a tractor.

OLGIN: And 44 years later, he's still driving one. He's already planted corn and is getting the fields 80 miles north of Charleston ready for the rest of the crops.

BURGESS: Behind that corn, I've already sprayed. Weeds are dying, and there's going to be grain sorghum back there.

OLGIN: Burgess has recently scaled back because of tough times. He cut off his home internet, cable and landline telephone. After back-to-back seasons of bad weather and low crop prices, he needs to trim costs. Last winter, nearly 3 feet of rain drowned his soybeans, and he wasn't able to sell many. But it hasn't just been one bad season for farmers in South Carolina.

BURGESS: Three years ago, I broke even. The year before last, I lost some money. And last year, I lost serious money. And it's hard when you're not getting a paycheck. It's really hard.

OLGIN: The state agriculture department estimates farmers lost more than $300 million in crops. It's not just South Carolina. Producers in places like Iowa, Missouri and Texas are also hurting. And the impacts go beyond individual farmer finances. Seed distributor Randall Morris says fewer crops means fewer seeds.

RANDALL MORRIS: That's why we've got, quote unquote, "a seed short" because, I mean, they just didn't have the quality of beans.

OLGIN: Morris sells seeds and fertilizer out of a large warehouse in another part of town. He reaches into a large white tarp bag and points to soybean seeds that don't look very good.

MORRIS: That's the beans the guys are going to be planting this year. You're seeing purple holes.

OLGIN: Morris is concerned those beans won't be worth as much. Even healthy crops aren't expected to increase in value very much over the next decade. Here's USDA economist Warren Preston.

WARREN PRESTON: It, you know, looks like we're in this sort of era of lower prices for several years. And it could take some sort of a major weather event to turn that around.

OLGIN: He says global demand for some U.S.-grown crops has weakened while at the same time, farmers here intend to plant more. But that isn't translating into more business for equipment dealers. Shiny red tractors, combines and pickers line the lot of John Stuckey's dealership. And he doesn't like what he sees - all of this equipment on his lot.

JOHN STUCKEY: It's pretty full. If the farming industry was real good right now, it wouldn't be that full.

OLGIN: Stuckey points out a giant red combine tractor the size of an army tank in front of his store.

STUCKEY: And then that big piece of machinery right there, that's that combine they repossessed and brought back in.

OLGIN: Repossessed because the farmer couldn't afford it. Stuckey says he now gets a few calls every week from people asking for more time to get the money together for monthly payments.

STUCKEY: There were days in this dealership we did not even see a customer. The phone did not hardly bring. I mean, they just - it was almost like they were hibernated and didn't come out.

OLGIN: Stuckey has been in this business a long time and has seen its ups and downs. But this time, he's concerned about the recovery. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Olgin in Kingstree, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.