Drought Staggers South's Farms

Another in a pattern of blistering summers takes a heavy toll on crops and livestock

A SEARING, four-month dry spell has shriveled crops, slashed feed supplies for pork and beef producers, and even slowed the growth of forests across a swath of Southern states from Texas to Virginia.

The Southeast, normally swept by cooling, summer thunderstorms, is caught on the flip side of the rainy weather pattern that has swamped the Midwest. Under a relentless sun, regional temperatures have ranged into the high 90s and low 100s day after day.

Weather damage is widespread. Soybeans that should be waist high by July are still scrawny, six-inch plants in August. Corn, with some statewide losses running as high as 80 percent, is shriveled and brown.

Coastal Bermuda and fescue grasses, desperately needed for winter feed, are either dormant or dead. Hay barns are empty. Dairy cows, when brought in for milking, are sometimes so spent with heat exhaustion that they drop to their knees. Hogs are off their feed. Poultry deaths are up.

Dale Linvill, an agricultural meteorologist at Clemson University in South Carolina, says that on a scale of 1-to-10, this drought is "an 11."

One reason: Wet spring weather preceded the drought, so young plants failed to develop deep root systems that could have saved them from the blistering heat conditions this summer.

Economists say agricultural and forest losses in the South are in the billions. South Carolina's $1.2 billion farm sector had already suffered $264 million in losses by early August, and the total is expected to go much higher by September. Forty-five percent of the cotton crop is already destroyed.

Veteran farmers are beginning to feel whipped. Drought after drought has dehydrated the South since the 1980s, giving this region summer weather more like Arizona than Alabama.

Tom Garrison, who owns 300 milk cows near Anderson, S.C., says this summer's spell of dry weather is even worse than the devastating 1986 drought that bankrupted a large number of farmers across Dixie.

"This thing has the potential to put me out of business," Mr. Garrison says. "I've been agonizing and agonizing about what I'm going to do."

Garrison's lament is echoed across the dusty fields of Anderson County. Near Starr, S.C., Tommy McGee runs a farming operation - cattle, hogs, soybeans, wheat, hay, and other crops - on 1,100 acres that have been worked by members of his family since 1790.

Mr. McGee normally supplies hay for surrounding ranchers as well as his own cattle - but not this year. "I've been feeding my winter feed, hoping it will start raining," he says.

McGee, who says he grew up plowing with a mule, points to a nearby field of Bermuda grass where he should already have baled up two or three harvests of hay totaling as much as two tons per acre each time. This year he got half-a-ton per acre - just once. The withered grass looks as if it will yield no more.

Stepping across a powdery, 28-acre soybean field, McGee stoops, pulls a skimpy bean plant, and complains that only weeds like Johnson grass seem to thrive in this weather.

Animals don't like the heat, either. McGee buys young hogs to fatten them up, but now he says that when they get up to around 200 pounds, they just "lay there and won't eat like any fat boy does."

Down the road a few miles, the Clinkscales' hog farm also is running short of feed. Harold Clinkscale, who taught agriculture at a local high school for 30 years, works their large farm with the help of two sons, Harold Jr. and Brian.

The Clinkscales' operation, which the family has owned since the late 1800s, is one of the best in the state. They are virtually self-sufficient, growing enough barley, milo, wheat, grain sorghum, and other crops to raise and sell around 600 hogs a year.

But hog farming is a matter of saving pennies to make a profit.

Mr. Clinkscale Sr. estimates it costs 40 cents a pound to bring a 230-pound hog to market. Prices last week were 43 cents a pound, down from 48 cents earlier this year. So the loss of all that feed - and the sudden need to buy feed from other parts of the country - could swiftly shrink profit margins.

Then there's the heat.

In recent weeks, the Clinkscales recorded 33 straight days above 90-degrees, with all but three above 95 degrees. To keep the hogs eating, they rigged up tiny sprayers in their hog sheds to cool the animals 24 hours a day. The hogs seem to like it: They were gobbling feed, even during the heat of midday when a reporter visited. Weather returns to old pattern

Dr. Linvill says the weather outlook isn't too good in the near future, even though some drought areas got a smattering of rain at the weekend. Longer-term, he says the benign weather, which farmers enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s, seems to have ended.

"So what's happening? We're going back to weather like at the turn of the century," he suggests. "The kind of weather that you see now is like your great-grandfather saw when he was farming.... If you look at that [rainfall] data [from the early 1900s], it was one year up, next year down, next year up, next year down."

Farming, always risky, could become more so. Ernest Locke, the agricultural agent for Anderson County, notes that putting in 100 acres of corn involves an investment of $20,000 in seed, fertilizer, fuel, and other costs, and for Carolina farmers this year, that entire investment went poof.

But Mr. Locke says it is the farmers with livestock, particularly the dairymen, who are hurting worst. Pasture grasses are eaten "down to the ground" throughout the county, he says. Without help soon, ranchers and dairymen who have spent years, and sometimes even generations, developing pure-bred stock, will be forced to cull their herds. Valuable animals will be lost, and it could take a generation or more to recover. Losses could be far-reaching

Elwyn Deal, assistant extension director for agriculture and natural resources at Clemson, notes that losses so far already total 23 percent of Carolina's total farm production, and there is no way to make that up, even if replenishing rains began today.

Like Locke, Dr. Deal worries that cattle and dairy losses don't show up immediately, but could hurt farmers here over the next two years, or even longer. And the same is true of the forest industry. One-quarter of the seedlings planted across the state last winter are dead, as are 15 percent of the two-year-old seedlings.

The federal government promises to help drought victims. Many here, however, worry that any assistance will be too little, even for some of the region's stronger farmers.

Cash flow is drying up like the rain for many of them, just as their need for cash to buy feed from other parts of the country increases.

Dairyman Garrison complains that people in his industry would probably fare better if the government, with its various controls, would get completely out of agriculture.

Locke agrees. "Congress loves poor farmers and cheap food," he says. "That seems to be the national policy."

But most farmers hang on. Cattleman McGee, who worked for two large corporations for five years after graduating from college, says he still is happiest on the family farm. He explains:

"If you make a mistake, there's no one to blame but yourself. Out here, it's definitely just you and the Lord."

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