Orangeburg County Cotton

Carl Sanders points out spots on a North area cotton field where winds from Hurricane Irma affected the growth of the plants. He farms along with partner Jerry Axson.

LARRY HARDY, T&D

North farmer Jeffrey Axson says Mother Nature was somewhat kinder in 2017 than the past two years, helping to create an overall good crop year.

"It has not been like the last two years," said Axson. "We are waiting on a year when we don't have anything like a hurricane or a tropical storm."

Two years ago, Axson and farmers throughout the county lost crops in the historic flood. And last year Hurricane Matthew flooded fields, again leaving farmers in a bind.

This year the culprit was Hurricane Irma, which ended up twisting cotton plants in middle September, making for a difficult harvest and potential losses.

"Some fields are worse than others and some fields are flat in some places," said Axson, who grows about 1,200 acres of cotton in North and Springfield. "We are going to have to go a little slower than normal in picking it up."

Axson also grew about 350 acres of peanuts.

His year is similar to what farmers are experiencing countywide.

Compared to the last two years, Orangeburg County Clemson Extension Agent Jonathan Croft said the growing season was better in terms of yield and yield potential.

"As in each year, there seems to be areas that did not fare as well as others and that is again the case this year," Croft said. "We had some areas that received too much rainfall in the early spring and then as we got into the middle of the summer, there were some areas that lack of rainfall stressed the crops."

Corn throughout the county saw above-average yields, but the jury was still out on other commodities such as cotton, peanuts and soybeans.

Overview

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture data, Orangeburg County is home to 1,056 farms with an average farm size of 268 acres.

The number of farms in Orangeburg County has increased from 1,002 in the 2007 census, though the average farm size has decreased from 287 acres in 2007.

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

The total land farmed was 283,128 acres. This is down from 287,524 acres in 2007.

Orangeburg County ranked first in total receipts for crops and livestock in the state.

Crops brought in a total of $124.6 million (first in the state) and livestock brought in $106.9 million (fifth in the state).

"We also rank number one in acres planted for cotton and peanuts, second for corn and ninth for soybeans," Croft said. "Animal agriculture is also big in Orangeburg County; we rank in the top 5 in most categories of animal agriculture that is measured by the census. The value of agriculture in Orangeburg County contributes greatly to the annual income of many residents of Orangeburg County."

Agricultural census data is taken every five years.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) will mail questionnaires for the 2017 Census of Agriculture to farm and ranch operators in December 2017 to collect data for the 2017 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

Orangeburg County row crop farmer Edwin Smoak grew about 200 acres of corn and averaged about 125 bushels an acre, which is up from what he was able to get last year. About 25 percent of his field was irrigated.

"We had some good weather early in the season and plenty of rainfall in June and July," Smoak said.

In Orangeburg County about 28,000 to 30,000 acres of corn were planted in 2017, which is consistent with 2016.

"However, due to lower corn prices, some irrigated acres were rotated to peanuts," Croft said.

The big news for corn in 2017 was dryland yields.

"Dryland yields this year did vary with region of the county and soil type, but overall the yields were as high as they have been in the last five years," Croft said. "From what I was told by farmers, yields ranged from 80 to 160 bushels per acre."

Irrigated yields ranged from 185 to 285 bushels per acre, again well above typical averages.

"Timely rains in many areas helped the crop, along with cooler early summer temps," Croft said, though some fields were negatively impacted with some early-season flooding and then mid-summer dry conditions on sandier soils.

Corn did not see many insect issues but some fields saw leaf disease that came in at the end of grain fill and appears to have hurt grain weight, Croft said.

Corn prices are lower than farmers would like to see them, falling in the $4 range. In order for farmers to see a profit, corn needd to be in the $5 to $5.50 range.

"It is a good thing we had a good crop year because in making the yields, we were able to break even," Smoak said.

Cotton

Axson said early numbers on the harvest show cotton at about 2-1/2 bales per acre, with dryland around two bales per acre. 

"It has been above average," he said, keeping his fingers crossed that Irma's winds did not have too severe an impact.

Approximately 20,000 acres of cotton were planted in the county in 2017, in line with last year's planting totals.

Croft said this year's cotton crop was hurt somewhat from cool and wet conditions in the early summer, which slowed growth.

"Excessive water in some parts of the county hurt plant stands," Croft said.

Axson said the prayer is for continued dry weather into November, which will enable farmers to get all the cotton out of the field.

Cotton prices, like corn, are also down to about 68 cents a pound. Farmers would like to see prices at 75 cents to 80 cents higher.

"Cotton prices are up from the last two years," Axson said, adding he was able to forward prices back in the beginning of the year at about 75 cents a pound rather than the current 68 to 69 cents. "We are going to have to have above-average yields to make up for the low price."

Axson said inputs such as equipment and equipment part costs, fuel and labor have "not gone down any."

Peanuts

Axson's 350 acres of peanuts were about half Virginia-type and half runners.

Approximately 18,000 acres -- consistent with 2016 -- were planted countywide.

As with cotton, Axson said he has an overall good peanut crop.

"It was a good crop due to the rain," he said, noting he received about 5,000 pounds per acre on dryland runners.

Yields on the irrigated Virginias is about 4,500 pounds.

"They are a little bit off this year," Axson said, noting his irrigated yields are usually at least in the 5,000-pound range.

Smoak grew about 200 acres of dryland peanuts and said early harvest has brought in about 2 tons an acre.

"The weather helped out," he said. "It was kind of dry in the end, but it had enough good weather earlier to help it out."

Peanuts this year had to contend with late leaf spot and tomato spotted wilt virus.

"Late leaf spot was really bad on a lot of acres in the area and caused early leaf drop and caused us to have to start harvesting some acres early," Croft said. "Tomato spotted wilt virus infection was bad on peanuts planted early during the extended cool, wet weather we experienced in mid to late April."

Axson blames his lower irrigated yields on tomato spotted wilt virus.

Contract prices for peanuts are about $500 per ton, which is lower than where farmers would like to see them in order to make a profit. A $600-per-ton contract would be much better, Croft said.

"China is buying a lot of peanuts from us," Axson said. "Hopefully, they will continue to be. It is a price with a good yield that we can make work."

Axson said production of peanuts in South Carolina as well as in Georgia means there are more peanuts on the market.

"The demand needs to stay up, otherwise prices will go down next year," he said.

Soybeans

Providence farmer Dean Hutto grew about 1,000 acres of soybeans. Harvest had not begun at the time of this interview. Half of the crop is irrigated and half is dryland.

"They look pretty good," he said. "With the weather we have had, they grew up quickly."

Hutto said the crop had to deal with a little drought before Hurricane Irma, but the storm did help the crop.

"I would say it will be average to above average," he said. "The hurricane helped fill out the pods a little bit. There was no damage from the wind as we had from cotton."

Prices, as with other crops, are down about 50 cents to a dollar from where farmers would like in making a profit. Hutto, like his colleagues, is hoping higher yields will help offset lower prices.

Approximately 25,000 acres of soybeans were planted in Orangeburg County this year, which is the same as 2016.

Soybean prices are averaging about $9.65 per bushel with a $12 range needed to make money. Croft said this is assuming average yields.

"Catching timely rainfalls from several storm fronts and a tropical storm helped soybeans this year," Croft said.

"Late season dry weather may have hurt some yields but (we) will not know for sure until we get into harvest."

Wheat

About 5,000 acres of wheat were planted this year and the 2018 wheat crop plantings have just begun. Acreage was up slightly from the 2016 crop.

Croft said wheat yields were down.

"It was lower than average because of the late freeze in the spring of 2017," Croft said.

Fruits and vegetables

Orangeburg County produced an average of $11.6 million in income in 2017 just in fruits and vegetables, according to Orangeburg County Clemson Extension Commercial Horticulture Agent Eulalio Toledo Jr. 

About 7,688 acres were planted across the county.

Toledo said overall yields for fruits and vegetables were "considerably good," though there were some yield reductions due to the lack of rainfall.

"Most non-irrgiated farms suffered the most and irrigated farms benefited the most," Toledo said. "Our highest vegetable acreage came from producers that farm for major processing plants, like McCall farms."

In addition to sufficient early season rains, crop yields in 2017 benefited from good management by growers using proper insecticides, fungicides, herbicide applications, a better understanding of integrated pest management (IPM), proper variety selection, and proper and conducive environmental conditions. 

Toledo said the highest value crops were sweet potatoes, greens (turnips/ rape/mustard), and processing tomatoes.

"Once again McCall farms ranks as one of the most important buyers in Orangeburg county, totaling an average of half of the county's fruit and vegetable income," Toledo said. "Small-scale farming was pretty much successful with fresh market prices being average or a little above average."

Toledo said tomato farmers did struggle with tomato spotted wilt virus throughout the growing season, affecting yields and price primarily due to an early season infestation of thrips. Squash also suffered from white flies.

But Toledo said most farmers will be able to make money in 2017.

Squash

Toledo said says despite white flies, squash yields did fairly well. Squash prices on average are about $8 per bushel.

"Prices are fair but growers always want more for their crop," Toledo said. "Farmers would like $12 per bushel. Fortunately some farmers were able to sell their squash at $10 to $12 per bushel."

The crop did suffer from downy mildew and powdery mildew issues. Downy mildew is a disease of the foliage caused by a fungus-like (Oomycete) organism. It is spread from plant to plant by airborne spores. It is a disease of wet weather, as infection is favored by prolonged leaf wetness.

Cucumbers

The cucumber crop was considered average with those without irrigation suffering the most. The lack of water negatively impacted pollination. 

But in some cases, Mother Nature was more accommodating, dumping rainfall when and where needed. Cucumber prices in 2017 were averaging about $13 a bushel, which is a little bit above average, though below the $15 a bushel where growers would like to see them.

Cucumbers too suffered from downy mildew.

Tomatoes

Tomato yields were about average despite the insects and tomato spotted wilted virus, but proper irrigation, fertility and insecticides did help the crop.

Tomatoes are selling for $11 a carton, which is down from the desired $13 a carton.

Greens

Greens saw an above-average growth year though bacterial leaf blight and black rot did have somewhat of an impact, Toledo said.

Mother Nature was friendly to greens with adequate rainfall and temperatures.

Greens were averaging about $13 a carton.

Current prices are OK but $15 per carton is always better," Toledo said.

Sweet corn 

Sweet corn fared average and, in some cases, a little bit below average for 2017, Toledo said.

Worms were a nuisance this year but proper irrigation and Bt insecticides benefited the crop.

Sweet corn is selling for about $12 a carton, which is below where growers would like to see the price in order to make a profit. An average of $15 a carton is desired, Toledo said.

The crop did suffer some from Southern leaf spot.

Watermelons

Watermelons in the county were above average, benefiting from proper management with irrigation and fungicides.

Gummy stem blight and the lack of irrigation were two factors negatively impacting the crop.

Gummy stem blight is a fungal disease that damages tissues of the stem at all stages of development.

Watermelons were averaging about $14 per hundredweight, which is about $2 below where farmers would like to see the crop.

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

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Business Reporter

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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