Hot and dry conditions across Calhoun County during the 2019 growing season mean yield reductions for farmers.
The weather on top of low commodity prices spelled difficulties for the Calhoun County farmer in 2019.
"The 2019 crop year was a challenging one with the usual culprit being the weather," Calhoun County Clemson Extension Agent Charles Davis said. "After above-normal rainfall in the winter months, the surplus was quickly depleted during the spring planting season with month after month of deficit rainfall and above-normal temperatures."
Davis said from April 1 to October 1, rainfall has been 15.32 inches below normal in the county.
"At the same time, there were 98 days with temperatures above 90 degrees, with 41 of those days being 95 degrees or above," he said. "The dry weather combined with extreme heat and low humidity added great stress to local crops."
Davis said what made 2019 perhaps even more challenging is the extreme and prolonged dryness and heat.
"While most crops can tolerate short periods of drought or high heat, there were unfortunately long periods with little to no rainfall and extreme heat, which in many instances were difficult for crops to tolerate," he said. "On the sandier soils, many corn fields were reduced to zero yields. While on the heavier soils, yields were greatly reduced but not totally destroyed."
"Cotton and peanuts are more drought tolerant than corn and were not impacted as dramatically in most instances, but yields were reduced," Davis said.
In Calhoun County, about 9,254 acres of corn were planted, according to the county's Farm Service Agency.
Dryland corn yields ranged from zero to 50 bushels in most parts of the county," Davis said. "Occasionally there were yields that were 80 or better but they were rare."
"Irrigated yields ranged from 150 to 250 bushels, depending on soil type and how well they were irrigated," Davis said. "Planting date also had an effect, in that later-planted corn missed some of the extreme heat during pollination."
Farmers would like to see dryland yields of about 100-plus bushels and irrigated yields of 250 bushels.
Corn yields were generally down from last year.
Callhoun County farmer Monty Rast also planted several hundreds acres of corn, which was under irrigation. Yields on irrigated corn were about 200-plus acres and non-irrigated was not even harvested, Rast said.
Though a challenging year, Davis said early planted corn did do better but heat and drought devastated most of the crop.
In addition to lower-than-desired yields, corn prices have been low all year ranging from about $3.50 to $4 a bushel. This is below the desired profit-making level of $5 a bushel.
If there was any good news with corn it was that heat and drought reduced most insect and disease pressure.
"Stinkbug pressure was high early in the season but the heat and dry weather seemed to work against them," Davis said.
Summarizing the year for farmers, Rast said, "Irrigation was valuable" in 2019 as "anything on irrigation is doing real well." Dryland not so much.
"We have not had any rain since August," he said. "We are having trouble with peanuts. It is hard to dig because the ground is so hard and dry. We had to irrigate in order to harvest."
Rast planted about 700 acres of peanuts, with the majority under irrigation. Yields on irrigated were about 4,500 to 5,000 pounds. Dryland peanuts were between 3,000 and 3,500 pounds per acre.
"Dryland stuff, it quit putting peanuts on in August," Rast said. "They just did not do well at all."
A total of 7,447 acres of peanuts were planted in the county.
"Peanut harvest is just beginning in our area, but it appears that yields will be impacted to some degree by the weather conditions," Davis said. "Dryland peanuts were definitely hurt by the dry weather and I anticipate seeing some yields in the 2,000-pound range. Irrigated peanuts should be closer to the normal 4,000-pound yield."
Farmers typically like to see about 4,000 pounds on dryland and 5,000 pounds on irrigated.
Davis said what did help the crop this year was the heartiness of peanuts.
"The crop’s innate ability to tolerate dry weather conditions and the fact that peanuts produce a crop over an extended period of time" are both qualities that helped eek out some yields despite difficult growing conditions.
"Crops planted on very light soils simply ran out of available water and stopped growing," Davis said.
Peanut prices were also profit-prohibitive.
"Contracts for the 2019 crop were $425 to $450 per ton," Davis said.
Farmers would like to see peanuts at $500 per ton or above to break even.
In Calhoun County, spider mites were an issue late in the season on dryland peanuts.
"Velvet bean caterpillars were problems in many fields," Davis said. "Diseases like late leaf spot were very light compared to past years, due in part to better fungicides, less rainfall and hot conditions."
Cotton surprised Rast, who planted about 800 acres of dryland. He got about 900 pounds per acre from his Cameron farm.
"It is real spotty," he said, adding that it could have been worse. "We didn't think we would make anything."
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Rast said he is not sure why dryland was better than anticipated.
"Maybe we got just enough rain to set a boll crop early," he said. "It looked good up to July. Maybe it set before the drought really set in. The better land held them stronger."
A total of 25,575 acres of cotton were planted in Calhoun County in 2019.
"Cotton harvest has just begun and there is little yield information available at this time," Davis said. "Many dryland fields on sandy soils took a beating from both the dry weather and the high heat."
"Many squares and small bolls in both the irrigated and dryland cotton fields were aborted during the periods of intense heat," he said. "Yields will range the gamut from 400 pounds per acre dryland to 1,200 pounds per acre irrigated."
Irrigation did prevent further yield reductions but it was a constant battle between the extreme heat and dry soils.
During a decent rainfall year with moderate temperatures, yields on cotton can range from about 900 pounds on dryland to upward of 1,500 pounds on irrigated.
Cotton did generally escape insect and disease pressure. Davis said the extreme weather conditions even seemed to be unfavorable to critters.
What has not been favorable are prices.
"Absolutely terrible," is how Davis describes cotton prices. "Cotton has stayed in the 56 to 60-cent-per-pound range most of the summer."
Rast said cotton prices started out relatively well in the spring but "deteriorated throughout the year with the tariffs."
He noted that many textiles and mills are in China, but with the country "not buying cotton," the prices have fallen.
"Nobody sells a crop they don't have," he said.
For any chance at making a profit, Davis said cotton needs to be at least 80 cents per pound.
Davis said data is limited for soybeans and wheat in Calhoun County as acreage for both crops is minimal.
Cameron row crop and vegetable farmer Josh Johnson has about 52 acres of produce, of which 20 acres were butter beans consisting of green and speckled; 30 acres were peas -- both white acre and pink eye; and 2 acres were edamame. The crops were about 90% irrigated.
Johnson farms with his father-in-law Bates Houck.
For Johnson, the year was decent. He jokes he is batting .500 as he has been growing vegetables for six years and three have been good and three bad.
For butter beans, he saw about 70 bushels per acre compared to the normal of about 30 to 40 bushels.
Johnson credits the success of his beans to "the cool snap we had in the first of June after the hot weather in May."
"There was very little insect pressure and almost no disease pressure," he said.
Johnson says prices on the speckled beans picked up some this year.
"Very few people are growing those anymore," he said, noting the beans are selling for about $3 to $4 a pound. Green beans are selling for about $3 to $3.50 a pound.
For peas, Johnson said he had 80 bushels per acre at about $5 a pound.
"They did very well," he said, noting most of his vegetables are sold to Grow Food Carolina out of Charleston. "They take my produce, blanch it, freeze it and sell it year round to restaurants."
The 2 acres of edamame were nothing to write home about.
"Yield was poor," Johnson said. "They were not irrigated."
He estimates he got about 30 bushels per acre of the edamame.
According to the latest 2017 Census of Agriculture data, Calhoun County is home to 480 farms consisting of about 148,718 acres. The average farm size is 310 acres.
The number of farms has increased from 412 in 2012 and the average farm size has also increased from 287 acres.
The agricultural census is taken every five years.
"Agriculture is the economic driver in Calhoun County," Davis said. "One only has to drive through the county to see that agriculture is king here."
Overall, Calhoun County ranked 16th in the total market value of crops, livestock and poultry sold at $80.8 million.
The county has a total of 309 cropland farms totaling 79,945 acres.
Calhoun County ranked fifth in the state in the market value of crops sold at $59 million, according to the 2017 USDA Census.
The county ranked second in cotton sold at $18.7 million and second in other crops and hay at $16.2 million.
The county's largest crops in planted acres in descending order are cotton, peanuts, corn and soybeans.