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Fields Flooded, Pockets Dry -Farmers fight more rain and hope for federal aid

Jerry Breland stands in his tobacco field. Photo by Michelle Davis

Jerry Breland stands in his tobacco field. Photo by Michelle Davis

Jerry Breland’s hat comes down low when he looks down over his fields. What used to be acres filled with produce and potential profit is now stagnant fields of water – leaving his income and his crops buried. “It’s not bad. It’s catastrophic,” he said.

Breland is in the same boat as dozens of other farmers across Colleton and Dorchester counties. They are all facing complete devastation from this summer’s heavy rains. “It looks like I’ve lost 60-70 percent crop loss, with cotton in the 80-percent range,” he said. “The peanuts might be salvageable. But I’m facing the loss of millions of dollars.”

Like many other farmers, Breland has crop insurance. But that only picks up 65-percent of costs. “I don’t make but 2 or 3-percent of the crop to carry home. I have to cover 30-percent from somewhere,” he said. “I don’t know any business that can start the year, make a budget, put 100 percent of the expenses into it, and then only get a 65-percent return. That’s what us farmers have done, even with crop insurance. The guys without crop insurance has taken a bigger lick than that.

“Wet weather will break you and dry weather will worry you to death,” he added.

Since February, farm service agencies across South Carolina have predicted an excess of 53 inches of rain, according to the FSA in St. George. The unprecedented rains have also sent the nearby Edisto River swelling from its 10-foot banks, reaching up to six more feet into nearby canoe businesses and homes.

Tobacco plant

Tobacco plant

Breland, who has been farming since he graduated college in 1985, says 9 more inches fell onto his Ruffin farm just last week. “We’re looking at more than 57 inches locally,” he said. “We can take 10-12 inches of rain and survive, but not this.”

S.C. Gov. Niki Haley recently announced her desire to work with Palmetto State farmers in getting them relief. Haley and the federal government – through the USDA – are offering the state’s farmers a 3-percent loan. There are no immediate disaster relief funds in the federal budget for farmers, but Gov. Haley said at a press conference last week that she is still seeking federal disaster relief funds for the flooded farmers. More than 30 of the state’s 46 counties have declared their counties emergency disaster zones from the floods.

Farmers in Colleton County – and 8 other Lowcountry counties – have until Oct. 6 to apply for disaster relief funds through the USDA and FSA offices.

“The 3-percent loan can help you, but to qualify you have to collatarize 150-percent. Not everybody can qualify for these loans,” said Breland.

Farmers were first told about these loans at a recent impromptu farmers meeting, held at Weather’s Farm Supply in Grover. Breland attended this meeting, along with farmers from six other counties across the Lowcountry. The meeting was organized and sponsored by Grover farmer Jeff Sweatman, who also farms land in Colleton County. Sweatman is also facing gut-wrenching losses in his corn and soybean crops. “The weeds are so high that we can’t get into the fields to evaluate the damage for insurance purposes,” said Sweatman.

Speaking to the frayed farmers at that Grover meeting was Harry Ott, state director of the USDA. Ott was appointed to the job about 3 months ago, and represents the state’s farmers on a national level. A farmer himself in Calhoun County, Ott said he “fully understands” the losses that farmers are facing.

“I don’t want to dash all hope, but from what I’ve seen so far, there are no disaster provisions from the federal level,” he told farmers at the Grover meeting. “We do not have a disaster relief fund in place for farmers anymore,” said Ott. “A cheap-interest loan is better than nothing.”

Ott encouraged farmers to reach out to their legislative leaders and to ask for help. “Every one of you have a vested interest in talking to your congressman,” Ott told the farmers. “Cotton is under water. And tobacco is just as bad,” he said. “It’s all pretty much a total loss and the farmers still have bills to pay from when they planted it.”

Heather Walters (1494 Posts)