For the past two years, South Carolina has suffered back-to-back disasters. The thousand year flood in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 damaged homes, took lives, and crippled businesses. One of the businesses hit the hardest by these events was farming. For farmers, the setbacks from the storms were massive. Federal Recovery Programs offered little help and insurance didn’t completely cover damages. Only what is harvested can be insured, so when disasters two years in a row lead to low yields for farmers, the insurance just wasn’t going to cut it.
South Carolina Department of Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers is very familiar with the struggles of the South Carolina farmer. He owns a farm himself and hears from farmers first-hand about their daily experiences and struggles. “In 2015, there was a look of despair,” Weathers says. “Then, when it became apparent there would be no assistance for farmers from the Federal Recovery Programs, it really became more so.”
Farming is an industry with massive ups and downs, regardless of weather disasters. Commissioner Weathers reminds: “Let’s not forget droughts and freezes. You take right now, and the biggest concern I have is we’ve not had enough cold hours for our orchard crops, trees and apples and blueberries, for those plants and trees to lay dormant while they rebuild the crop.” If it’s too dry when planting, it’s hard to get a stand. If it’s too wet when harvesting, you can’t get a harvest. Farming is a constant struggle, or as Commissioner Weathers puts it, “We partner with Mother Nature and she likes to let you know who’s boss sometimes.”
For the farmers hit hardest by the storms, 2017 could be a make or break year. Many are still struggling to get back on their feet after two years of losses. A third could put them out of business. Commissioner Weathers explains, “A person late in their career, maybe not another family generation coming along, they just say ‘I think the Lord is telling me something’ and they exit the industry.”
One farmer struggling to get back on their feet is Ronald Rabon, who owns a family cotton farm in Galivants Ferry. His two sons have already left the farm to take other jobs due to the low income. Rabon says he’s lost over $240,000 over the last two years due to the 2015 flood and Hurricane Matthew. It’s a number made worse by the general state of the farming industry. Storms or not, farmers across America are feeling the financial strain. “The people in the Midwest ain’t making no money,” Rabon says. “They’re just surviving. They ain’t had the storms that we’ve had, but for the last few years farmers haven’t done nothing but just survive. They ain’t made no money.”
For farmers looking to exit the industry, there are emotional and financial roadblocks. On the emotional front, Rabon speaks of the four generations of family members that worked on the farm. “My daddy made a living on this farm. I’ve made a living on it. His daddy made a living on it. And his daddy’s daddy made a living on it. But now, all of a sudden, my youngins can’t do it. So what I’m saying is our heritage is going down the drain.”
Even without the emotional pull of leaving behind a family heritage, there are unfortunate financial truths that have to be considered. “If I wanted to quit today, people’s broke. Who are you gonna sell what you got to? You’ve got to have a buyer. And if every farmer is in the same shape you’re in, they ain’t interested in buying nothing.”
It’s a situation with no easy solutions or outs. For most farmers, 2017 brings hope for bigger and better yields. For the Rabon family, they’re turning to prayer. “Me and my daddy have a prayer in my shop about every day or so, just hoping the Lord will bless us to get through this.”