Calhoun County cotton and peanut farmer Kent Wannamaker has been in farming for more than 17 years.

The last two years have been a "rough row to hoe" for Wannamaker with the weather and commodity prices at his farm in St. Matthews and Fort Motte. 

2017 has been brighter.

"It has been a lot better than the last two have been," Wannamaker said. "The last two have been disastrous. We are due a good one. This was not the best, but it is so much better everyone is feeling a lot more optimistic."

Cameron row crop and vegetable farmer Josh Johnson echoes Wannamaker.

"We laid an egg in 2015 and 2016," Johnson said, specifically with regard to peanuts. "We had a very good crop (this year)."

Johnson farms with his father-in-law Bates Houck.

Overall, 2017 was a bright spot for Calhoun County crop production.

"Favorable summer temperatures along with timely rains helped keep crops producing at near record yields," Calhoun County Clemson Extension Agent Charles Davis said. "After two horrible crop years brought about by the 2015 floods and 2016 Hurricane Matthew, Calhoun County farmers are happy to have decent crops to harvest for a change."

"Despite public perception, farmers would always rather have good yields and decent commodity prices than government subsidies and crop insurance payments," he said. "While commodity prices are in the tank, yields are up and the hope of a profitable year is very real."

Overview

"Calhoun County was built around agriculture, from the early days of the founding of this state until today, it is the lifeblood of the county," Davis said. "Farming promotes hard work, reward for your labors, neighborliness and an opportunity to do the oldest job known to man. As the cities close in around Calhoun County, residents need to remember that agriculture is what is keeping the country in the country."

According to the latest 2012 Census of Agriculture data, Calhoun County is home to 412 farms with an average farm size of 287 acres.

The number of farms in Calhoun County has increased from 341 in the 2007 census, though the average farm size has decreased from 324 acres in 2007.

The numbers are part of a decade-long trend of smaller farm sizes.

The total land farmed was 118,382 acres, up from 110,525 acres.

Calhoun County ranked 16th in total receipts for crops and livestock in the state.

Calhoun ranks second in cotton production and second in peanut production in the state, Davis said.

Crops brought in a total of $55.4 million (seventh in the state) and livestock brought in $24.2 million (22nd in the state).

Agricultural census data is taken every five years.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service will mail questionnaires for the 2017 Census of Agriculture to farm and ranch operators in December 2017 to collect data for this calendar year.

NASS plans to release Census of Agriculture data, in both electronic and print formats, beginning in February 2019. Detailed reports will be published for all counties, states and the nation.

Corn

Johnson, who had a small corn plantings, said his corn crop suffered from about nine inches of rainfall in April at a time when the crop was about 10 inches tall.

"A good bit of the fertilizer was washed away," he said, noting he normally averages about 200 bushels per year. This year he was down to about 180 bushels.

Countywide, about 7,503 acres of corn were planted in 2017, down from 10,553 last year.

Dryland corn in the county saw yields of 90 bushels and irrigated 200 bushels.

"We came closer this year to making an excellent crop," Davis said. "Ideally, 100 bushel dryland corn and 200 bushel irrigated corn would be a great average to have."

Corn prices have also been down.

Davis said in Calhoun County, corn prices have averaged around $3.50 per bushel.

"With a 30 to 50-cent basis on local corn, actual prices can be closer to the $4 range," Davis said.

"Generally speaking dryland corn production costs are around $500 per acre and irrigated corn costs around $700 per acre," Davis said. "With corn at $3.50 per bushel, break-even yield is 142 bushels per acre on dryland and 200 bushels on irrigated."

"Some farmers made yields this high on some fields, but on the average, farmers landed slightly below break even," Davis said.

Davis said farmers resort to a number of ways to make money.

"Some hold the crop in the bin and hope for higher prices," he said. "Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, production costs vary widely from farm to farm. A farmer who had an employee has more of that cost attributed to the cost of corn production than someone who does all the work himself."

Davis also noted a farm size can make a difference.

"A farmer who plants 1,000 acres of corn can buy seed and chemicals cheaper than someone who only plants 100 acres by getting volume discounts," he said. "When the dust settles, most farmers manage to make some money on their crop in a year like this."

Insects were kept at bay, though some corn did struggle with physoderma brown spot, which may have cost farmers some yield.

"We have seen this disease for years, but it seemed to be of no consequence, so it was pretty much ignored," he said. "This year it was very bad, probably due to the high rainfall and humidity this summer. Though it can’t be proven, many farmers felt that it hurt their yields."

Cotton

Wannamaker planted about 1,500 acres of cotton at his Calhoun County farm, with irrigated yields estimated to be about two bales an acre and dryland about 900 pounds to 1,000 pounds.

Wannamaker said Hurricane Irma was a blessing and a curse for the cotton crop.

The storm dropped about 5 inches of rainfall and helped the crop, but the winds were a little much. Irma's 50 mph gusts caused the cotton to tangle and fall.

"I can't defoliate all of it with the ground machine," he said. "It is all matted up and I have to take the airplane and defoliate most of it."

About 21,440 acres were planted in Calhoun County, up from 18,637 acres last year.

"A good (cotton) estimate will be 900 pounds dryland and 1,200 pounds irrigated," said Davis, noting the yield projections will please most farmers.

Cotton prices have been volatile, Davis said.

"Cotton prices have been on roller coaster ride this year, ranging from an average of 70 cents per pound in January, to over 75 cents in March, to below 66 cents in July," he said.

With the cost of production for dryland cotton about $600 per acre, Davis says a yield of 1,000 pounds (two bales) per acre at 65 cents per pound pays the bills with only about $50 an acre left over.

"Farmers would much prefer to see a consistent 80-cent cotton, which would allow them to break even in low-yield years and make some money in high-yield years, like this one," he said.

Wannamaker said 70-cent cotton won't cut it.

"Cotton needs to be at least 80 cents to 85 cents year in and year out," he said. "Seventy cents cotton is pretty weak."

Like corn, cotton benefited from moderate temperatures and beneficial rains. Heavy rains early in the growing season did hurt some.

Insect issues were fairly typical and there was some target spot found, but it did not turn out to be a factor in yield, Davis said.

Peanuts

Wannamaker grew about 700 acres of peanuts and is expecting to see at least 2 tons per acre of the crop.

Wannamaker is happier with peanut prices than he has been. With a good peanut crop, he is looking for a good year.

"We could call it the golden peanut," he said, noting the crop will most likely be above average.

"For the most part, peanuts got hurt in August during a dry spell, but peanuts can hold on pretty good," he said.

About 11,792 acres of peanuts were planted in Calhoun County, which is up from 9,917 acres last year.

Countywide, projected yields halfway through harvest are about 4,000 pounds per acre dryland and 4,700 pounds per acre irrigated.

"This is an excellent crop," Davis said. "Most yields are above average."

Johnson grew about 500 acres of peanuts at his farm in Cameron, with half being irrigated and the other half dryland.

"We had a very good crop, averaging about 4,500 pounds plus an acre," Johnson said. "Mild weather during the summer and timely rainfall helped."

Peanut contract prices are in the $425 range.

"Production costs on dryland peanuts is around $650 per acre and irrigated is around $800, so 2-ton peanuts at $425 will pay the bills with some to spare," Davis said.

Adequate temperatures and enough moisture helped to make for a good crop, though a dry spell in August and September had a negative effect on yields.

Insect problems have been typical, though peanuts did have to deal with late leaf spot later in the season, causing some peanuts to have to be harvested early.

"This did cause some yield decrease in some fields," Davis said.

Soybeans

About 2,840 acres of soybeans were planted this year, up from 2,155 acres last year.

"Soybeans have not been harvested yet, but a good guess would be 35 bushels dryland and 50 bushels irrigated," Davis said.

Yields will be on the lower end where farmers would like to see them: between 40 bushels to 70 bushel range dryland to irrigated.

Soybeans are currently in the $9-range.

With production costs about $350 per acre and $9 per bushel, a farmer needs 39 bushels per acre to break even, Davis said.

Like other crops, timely rains and moderate temperatures helped. As with peanuts, dry weather in August and September hurt.

There were no noteworthy insect pressure and disease issues for soybeans in 2017, Davis said.

Wheat

About  763 acres of wheat were planted in Calhoun County in 2017 compared to 767 last year.

Wheat yields averaged 40 bushels for dryland and 60 bushels for irrigated.

"Wheat yields should be 60 bushel dryland and 90 bushel irrigated," Davis said, noting wheat prices are about $4 per bushel.

"Wheat production costs are around $350 per acre, so 40 bushel wheat would need a price of $8.75 per bushel to be profitable," he said. "Even at 90 bushels, break-even price is $3.88, so even high-yield wheat is not profitable. Hence the reason we don’t plant much of it."

A mild winter helped the crop but a late freeze hurt, Davis said.

Insect and disease problems were kept in check, he said.

Fruits and vegetables

On the vegetable side of the farm, Johnson grew about 20 acres of butter beans -- both green and speckled. 

He also grew about 2 acres of white peas.

Yields were up rather substantially from those grown in recent years on both crops, Johnson said.

"We averaged about 90 bushels on butter beans and about 120 bushels on the peas," he said. All his vegetables were irrigated.

In 2014-15, Johnson made about 10 bushels per acre on butter beans and 20 bushels per acre on the white peas.

Both crops -- which see their growing season in May and June -- benefited from relatively mild temperatures and adequate rainfall.

The white peas in particular benefited from cooler temperatures.

"We had mild weather in June when they were flowering," he said. "Instead of being 110 degrees, it was 90 degrees. Those plants are self-pollinating. When it is extremely hot, they can't self-pollinate well."

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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