Timely rains and moderate temperatures this summer laid the groundwork for an average to above-average crop season this year.
While growers remain optimistic, history has shown there’s still time for problems to develop. One tropical system could flood fields, drown crops and delay harvesting.
"We are sitting on pins and needles," Calhoun County Clemson Extension Agent Charles Davis said. "We could have a great crop and be in danger of losing it all."
Local row crop farmers are doing OK despite recent drier and hotter conditions.
Timely moisture and moderate temperatures in the early summer provided adequate soil moisture, allowing crops to tap into a water reserve that helped them survive a hotter and drier August.
Meanwhile, commodity prices have been stable and consistently poor. Even so, there could be a glimmer of hope.
Orangeburg County farmer Jeffrey Kaigler grew about 1,000 acres of corn, both irrigated and dryland.
"Dryland is cutting good," Kaigler said. "It is cutting anywhere from 120. We have cut some 150, 160, 170 bushel dryland corn. The dryland corn is turning out good."
Kaigler said timely rains and lower temperatures helped.
North farmer Jeffrey Axson's irrigated corn crop was a success.
He received about 220 bushels to 240 bushels per acre. Although he did not have any dryland corn, he says many farmers he knows are “making some of the best dryland they have made in a long time.”
"We got good rain and it never got too hot," Axson said. "We never got the heat we got last year."
Dryland corn has particularly benefited from timely rains during the key fill-out stage for the crop.
In the spring and early summer, farmers were able to cut down on irrigation costs.
And now dry conditions are creating an ideal time for harvest. Though it is still too early to tell where yields will end up, Davis says “yields are close to expectations and maybe somewhat above.”
Kaigler, who also grew cotton, peanuts and soybeans, says a good year is sorely needed.
He noted farmers have had to deal with a historic flood, two hurricanes and a wet harvest over the past five years.
"We need to get the corn out of the field. We don't need a hurricane or anything like that to blow this good crop to the ground," Kaigler said.
The farmers are hoping that adequate yields will help offset lower-than-desired commodity prices.
"They are nowhere near where we really need them to be," Davis said. "You take what the market gives and try to be smart and take care of the jumps where you can."
Corn prices are hovering at about $3.50 a bushel. Farmers who were able to lock in their crop earlier this year were able to get about $4 per bushel of corn.
The Clemson Extension Agribusiness market update for late August revealed December futures for corn were about $3.54 a bushel, with a bullish trend to see prices increase.
Peanuts – both dryland and irrigated – also reaped the benefits of moisture early on. In fact, too much moisture drowned some of the crop.
Even so, Davis says peanut growth is also relatively positive.
"I am pleased with what I see," he said. "We seem to be putting on a good load of peanuts. We have not dug any yet, so it is hard to tell for sure, but by next month we should have a pretty good idea."
"Vine health is good and we have done a good job of fungicide programs," Davis continued. "Most of the peanuts I have looked at are good and clean with not much disease pressure."
Although conditions were drier in August than in July, soil moisture from the early rainfall helped carry the crop over in the dry spell.
"If you start out with zero and you get zero, you are still at zero," Davis said. This year, the crop “had money in the bank” to help carry it over.
Davis hopes showers will continue “to help us make it through.”
With the majority of peanuts being of the runner variety, Davis says most will begin to be harvested at the end of September into October.
Peanut prices continued to hover around $425 to $450 per ton. Farmers would love to see prices over $500 a ton.
Cotton also benefited from abundant moisture and moderate temperatures through the early summer. It continues to thrive.
"Cotton looks good," Davis said. "There is a good fruit load and plants look good."
Cotton on sandier soils did suffer from some early defoliation from potassium deficiency caused by the spring rains, Davis said. Boll rot has also been an issue, especially in cotton bolls under the canopy.
"We lost some nutrients that cotton really needs late in the season but we see it every year," he said. "It is not abnormal."
"But cotton on heavier soils looks great," Davis said.
This year’s cotton crop could see average to slightly above average yields.
Cotton prices have generally been hovering between 56 cents per pound to 66 cents per pound.
Prices have made a steady but choppy trend up since early April, with August being a good month, according to commodity market reports.
Axson also grew cotton and peanuts and both his dryland and irrigated crops have received the benefit of timely rains.
Early planted cotton is beginning to see boll set and peanut harvest is right around the corner, Axson said.
"It is starting to get dry again, so we could use a shower to help with the later cotton and peanuts to finish the crop up," Axson said.
Soybeans were spotty through early to mid-July.
The early planted crop in both irrigated and dryland fields started out blooming nicely, but increased heat and drier conditions stunted the crop's dryland growth.
Late-planted and or double-crop soybeans behind small grains were also growing well but needed timely rainfall to help the plants canopy.
"Right now at this stage, they look pretty good," Kaigler said about his soybeans. "We need some more rain. It is getting dry."
Soybeans will most likely be harvested at the end of October and early November.
"If we can get an average and above year – but, of course, prices still are not doing anything," Kaigler said. "The crop really is good so far."
Through the early summer, soybeans were struggling with weed issues and then insects.
Soybean futures are around $9.24 a bushel with a bullish trend as well.
The lower crop output has helped to lift commodity prices slightly.
Farmers would like to see soybeans at $10 a bushel in order to make a profit. They have been below $8 a bushel.
Like most sectors, agriculture has not been immune from the impacts of the coronavirus.
Grains used for feed saw a price hit when meat packing plants shut down after employees were infected with the virus. The demand for grain feed was impacted, Axson said.
Axson noted trade wars have also hurt commodity prices.
"China is just now getting back into the market," he said. "Grains have recovered a little bit, but cotton prices are not at a profitable level. They are below break-even."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency is providing farmers with aid through its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
The deadline to apply for assistance is Sept. 11. The program provides direct relief to producers who faced price declines and additional marketing costs due to COVID-19.
Over 160 commodities are eligible for CFAP, including certain non-specialty crops, livestock, dairy, wool, specialty crops, eggs, aquaculture, nursery crops and cut flowers.
Producers can seek support through farmers.gov/cfap.