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In Carolinas, Historic Rainfall Leading To Severe Crop Losses

Historic rainfall is making this a grim year for one of the biggest industries in the Carolinas: farming. Just when fall crops were ready to harvest, catastrophic floods drowned fields and sidelined farm workers. Some in South Carolina say their losses are so severe that they may go out of business.

Kirkman Finlay, III walks through his farm in Columbia. About a month and a half ago on this low-lying field, he would’ve been swimming.

“Water was absolutely over our heads where we stand right now,” he says.

Record-setting downpours led to such severe flooding that some of his workers used a boat to check on this area.

That’s not even the image that sticks in Finlay’s mind.

“At the foot of the hill where I live, it looked like something you would see Hollywood create,” he says. “You know when you're looking at a movie and it just is too spectacular? You're waiting for somebody to yell cut.”

Water covered everything.

Across South Carolina, people faced their own version of this nightmare. The storm in early October flooded homes, destroyed roads and caused fatalities.  

For many farmers, it’s a driving force behind the worst crop losses they’ve seen.

“The reports that you've heard about South Carolina agriculture, there is no exaggeration,” says state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers. “I have seen all parts of this state except maybe one corner that has been severely impacted by the timing and the amount of this rain.”

Meteorologists called it a thousand-year storm. Jake Crouch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says Hurricane Joaquin out in the Atlantic combined with an inland weather system.

“The two interacted to bring a flow of heavy tropical moisture into South Carolina, and both systems were moving so slowly that it was an unprecedented precipitation event,” he says.

It may be the wettest October in South Carolina history. Crouch says they’re actually not sure yet. 

“Some of the one-day precipitation totals that we saw, particularly along the coast, were so large that they flagged some of our internal quality control,” he says.

They were so big the computers thought they were fake. Crouch says they’re fixing that now.  

The storm also drenched North Carolina. State agriculture spokesman Brian Long says the eastern part of the state got the worst of it.

“I know from visiting with a peanut farmer in Bladen County, he was looking at about an 80 percent loss on his peanut crop,” he says.

But Long says statewide, the peanut crop is on pace to beat its 10-year average. Although some other crops are worse off, Long says his state is lucky compared to South Carolina.   

In Newberry, South Carolina, John Long (no relation to Brian) is finishing up his soybean harvest. He  points out the rain was only the latest problem for farmers this year.

“It wasn't like it was just one disaster; it was almost like it was a combination of three things that got us in this situation,” he says.

First, low commodity prices meant it’d be challenging year even with good weather. Then a drought over the summer ruined his corn crop. 

“Then we had the flood that messed up the quality on the soybeans and it also pretty much messed up the cotton crop,” he says. “We’re going to come up short this year. I told some folks it's a good thing I like soup and cheese toast because I’m going to probably be eating a lot of it this winter.”

Long has a beef and turkey operation that’ll hold him over.

About two hours east in Turbeville, Jeremy Cannon’s family farm is looking at significant losses on every one of their crops.    

“There's farmers that's going to quit after this year if we don't find some help; I'm on the list,” Cannon says. “I've discussed it with my father. He's been doing it his whole life, and I've been doing it my whole life. I couldn't ever see myself doing anything else.”

But he says if you can’t pay your bills, then you don’t have a choice.

The emergency loan he’s hoping for is within the range the federal government can give in disaster areas like this. He says he’ll decide whether to fold by March. 

Driving around in Columbia, Kirkman Finlay, III says this will be the worst year he’s had in 16 years of farming. He’s in good enough shape financially to stick it out though.

He says it’s been inspiring to see how the community has supported each other.

“I just wish that we could get government to respond the way that the volunteer groups do,” he says.

Finlay is a state house representative, and he wishes the legislature had come back early for an emergency session on the recovery. State leaders have said they'll wait until the regular session begins in January.