High and dry: Farmers cope with drought

Published 1:11 am Thursday, July 21, 2011

Farmer Ricky Sawyer holds an immature ear of corn in his bone-dry field Wednesday afternoon in the Terra Ceia community. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

TERRA CEIA — Ricky Sawyer held a shriveled ear of corn plucked from a withered stalk.

Thunder rumbled tantalizingly in the background, but the drought’s damage was done — Sawyer’s corn crop is basically a total loss, at least in this field.

Soybeans planted in the corn’s wake have had no success; the soil is too dry, and Wednesday’s scattered showers didn’t make an appreciable difference.

Sawyer and his brother Jerry have been farming for decades.

Jerry Sawyer said he started farming in 1972.

This year’s drought is the worst he’s ever seen.

“We waited for it to rain to plant the beans, and we had enough rain for the beans to come up,” Jerry Sawyer said. “The beans sprouted, had sprouts on them probably a quarter of an inch long, but where it was so hot, the wind blew, it dried the land out so quick that the beans couldn’t make it after that.”

The story was a bit less dire among the cotton planted by Milton Prince and his son-in-law Troy Slager.

Prince estimated his cotton fields have seen perhaps a little more than an inch of rain since April. As a result, the cotton plants aren’t nearly as high as they should be, and the harvest won’t be as generous.

Like the Sawyers, Prince can’t compare this drought to any in his experience.

“We’ve had some bad ones, but I can’t recall one this bad,” said Prince, who’s been farming since 1973.

These aren’t isolated cases.

Drought-related crops losses could easily number in the tens of millions of dollars this year in Beaufort County alone, said Gaylon Ambrose, a county agricultural extension agent.

Ambrose has been an agent here since 1979.

“I can’t remember a drier spring and summer in Beaufort County,” he said.

The county’s biggest crops have been affected by the weather, including corn, cotton, soybeans and tobacco, he related. Of these, corn seems to have suffered the worst.

Beaufort County is the top corn-growing county in North Carolina, Ambrose pointed out.

Tobacco tends to be a little more resilient than some other farm staples, but quality will be an issue, he said, pointing to plants that have been stunted by relentless heat.

On the plus side, good fall growing conditions and a favorable spring led to a decent wheat harvest earlier in the year, he said.

Also, he continued, “There’s still a little hope for soybeans.”

But this autumn promises to be a tough conclusion to a bad year for many local farmers. Most of these farmers have crop insurance, but the payouts won’t equal what the growers put into their fields, Ambrose indicated.

“It’s a risk that comes with the business itself,” he observed. “Crop insurance is one way to prepare.”

Complete crop-loss estimates aren’t immediately available and won’t be until the harvest concludes, but Ambrose has been around long enough to see what’s coming. So have the farmers he talks to on a regular basis.

For now, all Prince and his fellow growers can do is wait.

“You’ve got to be patient,” he said. “You’ve got to put up with a lot of disappointment.”