Hot and dry conditions combined with low commodity prices made for a challenging 2019 for Bamberg County row crop farmers.
"It has been kind of a tough year," said Bamberg County farmer Richard Rentz, who owns Rentz Farms near Ehrhardt. "We will definitely be in the red this year."
Bamberg Farm Service Agency County Executive Director Chris Wallace echoed Rentz by noting 2019 continued a trend of challenging times on the farm.
"From May 1 forward, May daily high temperatures routinely exceeded 90 degrees, which adversely affected the pollination of some corn," Wallace said. "Severe drought, low humidities and windy conditions in May further challenged crops’ growing conditions and planting opportunities."
Wallace said supplemental U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency programs have helped farmers across the county, but "commodity prices need to rise for farmers to make it own their own."
For Rentz, like other farmers throughout The T&D Region, farming has been a challenge over the past few years. From historic floods, to tropical systems to this year's heat and drought, uncertainty has reigned supreme.
"We had a wide variety of weather over the last five years," Rentz said.
Rentz grew about 150 acres of mostly dryland corn with dryland coming in at about 50 bushels per acre and irrigated at about 190 to 200 bushels per acre.
"We were very dry at the end of May and early June," Rentz said. "Early June was very dry and very hot."
Rentz said even the irrigated corn "was not quite what it could have been."
Rentz uses his corn primarily as feed for his hogs.
Countywide, 7,227.23 acres of corn were planted in 2019, which was about 1,141 more corn acres than was planted in 2018 (an increase of 16%).
Also, more Bamberg County corn acreage was irrigated in 2019, Wallace said.
Irrigated corn totaled 2,763.79 acres, while non-irrigated corn totaled 4,463.44 acres.
"Due to a very dry and record-hot May, early planted non-irrigated corn suffered greatly, yielding less than 25 bushels per acre," Wallace said. "Later-planted non-irrigated corn averaged between 60-80 bushels per acre."
"The middle and northern part of Bamberg County received more rain than the southern part (around Ehrhardt) during the corn-growing season," Wallace said.
A realistic non-irrigated corn yield is 100-120 bushels per acre, Wallace said.
"A lot of irrigated corn made a good crop averaging 180 bushels or better," he said.
Reduced dryland yields were helped somewhat by better corn prices this fall, but prices are still below where farmers would like to see them.
"Corn prices are around $4.80 per bushel, which is better than the $3.60 price range last fall," Wallace said. "Producers would like to see at least a $5-per-bushel price."
Rentz grew about 200 acres of peanuts with some irrigated but most dryland.
"I think I have the lowest yield I have ever had on dryland and the best I have ever had on irrigated," he said. He has farmed peanuts for 30 years.
Dryland yields are less than a ton and irrigated are averaging about 3 tons per acre.
"Heat, heat," Rentz said when asked what was the biggest culprit in poor peanut production. "Peanuts do not like high soil temperatures in August and that is what we had a lot this year."
Countywide, 2,553.61 acres of runner peanuts were planted, which was 40 acres less than in 2018.
About 25% of the peanut crop was irrigated.
About 948 acres of Virginia peanuts were planted in 2019, with about 25% of those irrigated. This is about 150 acres less than was planted in 2018.
"Peanut harvest is not complete but some early yields are averaging between 4,000-5,000 pounds per acre for Virginia peanuts," Wallace said. "Two tons is a goal for most Virginia peanut producers."
Non-irrigated runner peanuts suffered due to dry weather and averaged as low as 2,200-2,500 pounds per acre, according to information from a local peanut producer cited by Wallace.
Irrigated runner peanut yields may average as high as 4,500-5,000 pounds per acre.
Peanut prices are at the same level or slightly lower than in 2018, Wallace said.
Runner peanuts are getting $400-425 per ton compared to last year’s $430 per ton.
Virginia peanuts will get about $450 per ton, the same as last year.
In addition, 19.3 acres of Virginia peanuts were designated as green peanuts, Wallace said.
"Peanut producers would have liked to have seen prices of at least $500 per ton this year," he said.
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With contract prices hovering in the $400 range, Rentz said there is no way growers can make any money on peanuts.
Rentz planted about 40 acres of irrigated cotton and 500 acres of dryland.
Though he was still harvesting cotton at the time of this report, Rentz is predicting he will have between 350 pounds and 2-1/2 bales in total. The story was more of the same -- hot and dry.
"Some was planted late due to the dry weather," he said. "It never recovered over the summer."
Rentz said for a three-month period between July 10 and Oct. 10, he estimates about 4 inches of rain fell total.
Overall, about 8,526.44 acres of cotton was planted in Bamberg County in 2019 for a decrease of about 475 acres from last year.
"However, 627 acres of cotton were prevented from being planted due to extremely dry conditions in the month of May," Wallace said. "About 30% (2,407 acres) of planted cotton was irrigated."
Wallace said through the end of October, about 50% of local cotton had been harvested.
"Most yields for non-irrigated cotton are averaging between 750-800 pounds per acre," he said. "Most irrigated yields may average between 1,250-1,500 pounds per acre."
Producers of non-irrigated cotton hope for yields of at least 2 bales per acre while irrigated cotton producers hope for 3 bales per acre, said Wallace.
Cotton was also among the first round of agricultural commodities that China hit with retaliatory tariffs in summer 2018. Its price has been slowly declining ever since. This summer it dropped below the level most farmers need to make any money from their 2019 harvest.
"The whole deal with China has gotten cotton prices depressed," Rentz said. "They are the lowest in a number of years."
Industry experts say there is little chance they will rise again until the trade war ends.
"We can't export to China," Rentz said. "That was our main buyer of cotton. They have a huge textile industry. When you lose your main buyer like that, it is hard to overcome."
Rentz said the U.S. has traded with other countries but "it has not made up what we lost to China."
"The USDA is making partial payments back, but it won't make up what we lost price wise on cotton," he said.
Cotton prices are about 65 cents per pound. Cotton producers need at least 70 cents per pound and a good yield to make a profit on their crop, Wallace said.
Last year cotton prices were about 78 cents per pound in October, Wallace said.
The only positive about cotton was that the stink bug was a relatively minor problem.
About 3,370.77 acres of soybeans were planted in 2019, which was a decrease of about 250 planted acres from last year.
About 150 acres of soybeans were irrigated.
"Statewide, the soybean crop is rated at 18% poor or very poor, and due to Bamberg County’s drought status, local soybeans are worse than that," said Wallace, noting the county's soybean harvest just recently got underway. "A lot of local producers are thinking 20-25 bushels per acre at the most may be harvested and that may be optimistic."
Soybean producers hope for a yield of 45-50 bushels per acre, Wallace said.
Soybean prices in late October were around $9.36 per bushel, up about $1 from last year at this time.
About 285 acres of wheat were planted for 2019, which is less than half of what was planted last year.
"There were 1,814.62 acres of wheat that were prevented from being planted due to wet conditions in the fall of 2018," Wallace said.
Wheat averaged about 50 bushels per acre while producers were hoping for around a 70-bushel yield.
Wheat prices were around $5 per bushel, while producers were hoping to receive around $8 per bushel, he said.
Though it has been difficult farming for the past several years, living off the land continues to be key in Bamberg County.
"Agriculture remains a huge part of Bamberg County’s economy," Wallace said.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture data, Bamberg County is home to 355 farms consisting of about 102,591 acres. The average size of a farm is 289 acres.
The county has a total of 252 cropland farms consisting of about 53,499 acres.
The agricultural census is taken every five years.
Overall, Bamberg County ranked 25th in the total market value of crops, livestock and poultry sold at $36.9 million, according to the 2017 census. The county ranked 17th in the market value of crops sold at $22.9 million.
The county ranked sixth in melons, vegetables, sweet potatoes and potato sales at $4.8 million. The county ranked eighth in other crop and hay sales at $4.9 million.
The county ranked 12th in cotton sold at $4.5 million.