Dry weather is tightening its grip on the grain belt. --

This week’s Drought Monitor reveals 22 percent of the U.S. is in some form of drought. The most extensive is in the High Plains as nearly all of the Dakotas plus Nebraska and eastern Montana are dealing with parched conditions. --Though hot and dry remains in the forecast for the region, the pattern can quickly change. As Josh Buettner reports in our Cover Story, producers in one coastal state are still recovering from a weather whipsaw.

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Worldwide, perhaps no other vocation is more tied to the arbitrary essence of Mother Nature than farming.  The elemental peaks and valleys can make or break a season - or a life’s work.  And for producers in South Carolina, a demoralizing string of extreme weather events in recent years have created a struggle to bounce back from the brink of disaster.

Harry Durant/Clariton County, South Carolina: “About two o’clock Sunday morning, my wife woke up and she said Harry it’s white capping in the backyard, and I said - WHAT?”

In October 2015, 11 trillion gallons of water pummeled the Palmetto State, as between 10 and 20 inches of precipitation accumulated across the region in a 48 hour period; 35 of 46 counties were declared primary disaster areas – making them eligible for federal aid.

Governor Nikki Haley/R – South Carolina (2011-2017): “We haven’t seen this level of rain in the low country in 1000 years.  That’s how big this is.”

Faced with an historic torrent, then-Governor Nikki Haley deployed the South Carolina National Guard to assist with rescue, evacuation and damage control. 

Leonard Vaughan/Service Hydrologist – National Weather Service/Columbia, South Carolina:  “Try to put that rainfall, like, into perspective…  The average rainfall for this part of the country in South Carolina is typically between 40 and 45 inches of rain a year.”

Leonard Vaughan, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Columbia, the capitol city, adds that the deluge came on the heels of an extended drought that followed an unseasonably late freeze – a cycle that, soon enough, would repeat itself in an eerily similar fashion.

Leonard Vaughan/Service Hydrologist – National Weather Service/Columbia, South Carolina:  “You’re looking at some areas receiving nearly half their annual rainfall in a matter of two days.  And so you can understand why there was so much flooding across the area and why we had so many issues with dams collapsing, bridges and what not, being damaged due to the rising water and the heavy rainfall.”

While getting goods to market on pavement proved to be a challenge, flowing flood waters also gummed up ports and prevented a timely harvest.  Many commodities were ruined in the interim.   

State officials reported $375 million in losses to agriculture alone in 2015.  Those figures were later compounded as persistent wet conditions prevented planting of winter crops.

In contrast with the near monoculture of grain and oilseed found across the cornbelt, South Carolina counts softs, legumes, tobacco and produce among its farming repertoire.  And while that variety might lend a comparative advantage of sorts to local producers, on occasion, risk can outweigh reward.

Cag Brunson/Summerton, South Carolina: “We grow corn, wheat, soybeans, and those don’t bother me as much because we can insure them.  But the vegetables are not an insurable crop and that’s why it hurts a lot worse.”

Two months after the historic weather event, hundreds of farmers with no inventory to sell petitioned state leadership for a piece of the $140 million in federal funds Haley requested to assist besieged homeowners.  The governor opposed a bailout for agriculture, saying crop insurance could cover much of the problem, and pledged to treat all South Carolinians exactly the same.

However, the state legislature passed the South Carolina Flood Farm Relief Act in the spring of 2016, which the governor vetoed.  Lawmakers swiftly overrode her action.

Some farm associations described qualifications to recoup up to 20% of crop losses, capped at $100,000, as stringent, but expressed gratitude for the state’s help.

Clint Leach/Assistant Commissioner for External Affairs and Economic Development – South Carolina Department of Agriculture: “It was a tremendously bad experience for a lot of farmers.  Our state government stepped up and helped with a $40 million grant program to assist farmers who experienced 40% losses.”

South Carolina Department of Agriculture Assistant Commissioner Clint Leach says the agency has recalibrated efforts to engage the public and inform how the industry affects the lives of all state residents.

Clint Leach/Assistant Commissioner for External Affairs and Economic Development – South Carolina Department of Agriculture: “South Carolina agribusiness is a $42 billion industry.  It’s the state’s largest industry.  That includes about 212,000 jobs annually that’s put right back into South Carolina’s economy here.”

Officials reported another late freeze followed by drought in 2016, but just as the natural perils of the previous October were beginning to fade into memory, a new violent weather system was barreling in from offshore.

Dean Hutto/Holly Hill, South Carolina: “We’ve been cursed, so to say, since 2015.  Seems we always have one huge weather event some time through the year that has effected everyone’s decision making a little bit.”

Dean Hutto, cultivates 3,700 acres of row crops halfway between the state capitol and the Atlantic coast.  Flooding wiped out his cotton harvest and decimated peanut and soybean yields.  Insult was added to injury the following year.

Dean Hutto/Holly Hill, South Carolina: “The first week of October, again in 2016, we had Hurricane Matthew came through and we didn’t get but about 14 inches that weekend, which seems kind of crazy to say but it was welcome to only get that much.”

As the category 5 tempest plowed through the Caribbean and up the eastern seaboard, it made landfall in the Pee Dee region of northeastern South Carolina.  According to state estimates, another $52 million in agricultural losses were tacked on as some crucial roads remained unrepaired following the first weather melee.  Hutto himself feels lucky to have gotten away with a 10 percent cotton loss and several months of downed tree clean-up.

But it wasn’t long before the young farmer’s spirits were dampened.  A spring freeze cut out one third of Hutto’s emerging wheat and obliterated roughly 90 percent of the state’s peach crop - the worst loss in a decade.

In recent weeks, another weather crisis was averted as meteorologists tracking Tropical Storm Cindy watched the system divert away from the Palmetto State.  Many in South Carolina welcomed the breathing room, but those struggling to regain a foothold on the farm are keeping their fingers crossed.

Dean Hutto/Holly Hill, South Carolina: “If we can make it all the way to December 31st without a humongous weather event, I think it will pick up the spirits of South Carolina agriculture a little bit because I feel like right now, everybody is just kind of waiting on the next big hiccup.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.