Too Much Rain Washes Out Crops In The South

fromWFAE

Parts of the South have seen record rainfall this year. After years of drought, you'd think all that rain would be a good thing. But too much of the wet stuff is bad for farmers' crops.

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Rotten peaches, drowned tobacco, moldy wheat and waterlogged watermelons. Those are a few examples of how heavy rains are ruining crops in the South.

Michael Tomsic, of member station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., reports that all that rain is washing out a sizable chunk of the Southern economy.

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MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Arthur Black slogs through the mud and climbs into his pickup truck.

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TOMSIC: He drives through one of his peach tree orchards in York, S.C.

ARTHUR BLACK: We're not used to having 2 feet of water in the summertime on these things.

TOMSIC: The state has had more rain at this point in the year than it's had in almost five decades. Black rumbles through the orchard past dead, yellowish trees and tiny rotten peaches.

BLACK: We ought to pick another thousand baskets of peaches off this and we've picked nothing.

TOMSIC: Black says some orchards did better, but he lost about a fourth of his total peach crop. He knows others who took even bigger hits. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley compares the crop damage to what you'd see after a hurricane.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY: The amount of rainfall that we have seen across South Carolina has become absolutely disastrous for the farmers in this state.

TOMSIC: Haley has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a disaster declaration for the entire state.

In North Alabama, some farmers are worried they'll have the worst cotton crop in 45 years. In Louisiana, mildew could wreak havoc on soybeans. And Georgia has seen the heaviest rains, about 40 percent more than usual at this point in the year.

DON MCGOUGH: This amount has really caused farmers a lot of difficulty.

TOMSIC: Don McGough, of the Georgia Farm Bureau, says the downpours will mean more expensive peanuts and pecans for consumers, less income for farmers, and a big hit to the state economy.

MCGOUGH: Well, agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Georgia. It is extremely important, and it provides a lot of jobs and a lot of money circulating within the economy.

TOMSIC: State agriculture commissioners across the region estimate the crop losses could add up to billions of dollars. The Southeast did have the second-wettest January through July on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate scientist Jake Crouch says that's a dramatic swing from the severe drought of the past few years.

Here's some perspective: the drought caused Lake Hartwell in South Carolina to shrink to near record low levels late last year. This summer, it almost filled to a record high.

JAKE CROUCH: In the Southeast, we've gotten way too much rain and we've gotten it way too fast. So it's almost too much for our infrastructure to handle.

TOMSIC: In fact, dry spells can be easier on farmers than downpours. Steve Troxler is North Carolina's agriculture commissioner.

COMMISSIONER STEVE TROXLER: The old adage as a farmer is that a dry year will scare you to death and a wet year will kill you. And, you know, we can irrigate some of our crops when it's dry. But when it's wet, you can't take the water out.

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TOMSIC: It can also be tough just to get to your crops. In Concord, N.C., Brent Barbee is sliding around his family's vegetable farm in a golf cart. Even his much more durable, all-terrain vehicles can't handle this much mud.

BRENT BARBEE: We've been stuck twice this morning. It's just one of those things where it takes you an additional 30, 45 minutes to go back to the house, get a tractor and a log chain, and come back and pull it out and then start again.

TOMSIC: Barbee says some of the mud holes are two feet deep. He even had to buy rubber boots that cover his entire lower legs to slosh through the mess.

BARBEE: And you've got times where, OK, I've got to get in the rain and actually do this to keep this from rotting in the field, number one. To keep me from getting behind on my next crop, number two.

TOMSIC: Barbee says best-case scenario, he and his family will probably lose about a fifth of their vegetables this year. That's assuming the weather gets better, even as the South is entering the peak of hurricane season.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.

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