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In Carolinas, Heavy Rains Wash Out Farmers' Crops

Michael Tomsic

Rotten peaches, drowned tobacco, moldy wheat and waterlogged watermelons.

Those are a few examples of how heavy rains in the Carolinas are decimating crops. Farmers are dealing with some of the wettest weather they've ever had, and all that rain is washing out a sizable chunk of the Southern economy.

Arthur Black slogged through the mud and climbed into his pickup truck. He fired up the engine and drove through one of his peach tree orchards in York, S.C.

"We're not used to having two feet of water in the summertime on these things," Black said as he pointed at the trees.

Credit Michael Tomsic
Rotten peaches lie underneath a tree at Black's farm in York, S.C.

The state has had more rain at this point in the year than it's had in almost five decades. Black rumbles through the orchard, past dead, yellow-ish trees and tiny, rotten peaches.

"We ought to have picked another thousand baskets of peaches off this, and we picked nothing," he said.

Black said some orchards did better, but he lost about a fourth of his total peach crop. He knows others who took even bigger hits, like a farmer with 50 acres of cantaloupe that basically washed out, rotted and attracted a sea of flies.  

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley compared the crop damage to what you'd see after a hurricane. 

"The amount of rainfall that we have seen across South Carolina has become absolutely disastrous for the farmers in this state," Haley said in a press conference.

She's asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a disaster declaration for the entire state, which would allow farmers to apply for low-interest emergency loans.

Farmers across North Carolina are struggling, too. Amy Poirier of the state Department of Agriculture works with farmers in Mecklenburg and 10 other counties. She said the crop losses are widespread.  

"It is statewide," Poirier said. "I'll hear from my co-workers who are more on the eastern part of the state, and they'll talk about how they've just had complete crop losses."

Some state agriculture commissioners in the Southeast estimate the crop losses could add up to billions of dollars.

Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
This year the Southeast as a whole had its second-wettest January through July on record.

South Carolina has had its second-wettest January through July on record, and North Carolina has had its third-wettest, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That's a dramatic swing from the severe drought of the past few years. Here's some perspective: the drought caused Lake Hartwell in South Carolina to shrink to near record low levels late last year. This summer, it almost filled to a record high.

"In the Southeast, we've gotten way too much rain and we've gotten it way too fast," said Jake Crouch, a NOAA climate scientist based in Asheville. "It's almost too much for our infrastructure to handle."

In fact, dry spells can be easier on farmers than downpours. Steve Troxler is North Carolina's agriculture commissioner.

"The old adage as a farmer is that a dry year will scare you to death, and a wet year will kill you," Troxler said. "We can irrigate some of our crops when it's dry. But when it's wet, you can't take the water out."

Credit Michael Tomsic
Sam Hall crouches by some of his family's vegetables that are covered by a plastic tarp.

But you can try to cover the crops. Back in York, rain fell on plastic tarps at the Hall family farm last week. The Halls use the tarps to cover a few acres of vegetables. It kind of looks like they're in tunnels.

Sam Hall said that setup was crucial this summer.

"Our tomatoes outside, we picked probably 30, 40 percent of them, of what we should have been able to pick," Hall said. "And the rest was just a loss."

But the tomatoes in the tunnels are doing much better, and the Halls haven't lost as many of the berries they grow. 

Another problem farmers are facing is just getting to their crops. In Concord, N.C., Brent Barbee slid around his family's vegetable farm in a golf cart last week.

He said even his all-terrain vehicle can't handle this much mud.

"We've been stuck twice this morning," Barbee said. "It's just one of those things where it takes you an additional 30, 45 minutes to go back to the house, get a tractor and a log chain, and come back and pull it out and then start again."

He said some of the mud holes are two feet deep. He bought rubber boots that cover his entire lower legs to slosh through the mess.

Credit Michael Tomsic
Mud holes on the Barbee's farm.

"And you've got times where, OK, I've got to get in the rain and actually do this to keep this (crop) from rotting in the field, number one," Barbee said. "To keep me from getting behind on my next crop, number two."

He said best-case scenario, he and his family will probably lose about a fifth of their vegetables this year. That's assuming the weather gets better, even as the Southeast is entering the peak of hurricane season.

"Don't even talk about a hurricane," he said with a laugh. "I'd hate to see a hurricane come. Of course, it can't get a whole lot wetter. We'll just put on our swimming trunks and go then, I guess."

Barbee laughed again and said the biggest difference would be the breeze.