Gov. Mark Sanford on Wednesday asked that all but two of South Carolina's counties be declared federal disaster areas because of the region's ongoing drought, a situation he said is threatening the state's vital agriculture industry.
In the letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, Sanford said more than 30 percent of this year's harvest of corn, hay and pasture crops has been lost because of the drought.
“The Southeast has experienced a period of serious drought for more than a year now,” Sanford wrote in the letter, sent as he toured hard-hit areas in Pickens County.
Only two counties – Charleston and Beaufort, which Sanford said “are not reporting losses at this time” – were not included in the request, which, if approved, would allow farmers to get low-interest emergency loans.
The situation has been most dire in the northwestern portion of the state, where some wells have gone dry and at least two lakes have registered at least 10 feet below normal this summer. Earlier this month, state officials added nine counties in the area to the list of five already suffering extreme drought.
The Drought Response Committee also asked residents in the 14-county extreme drought area – a wedge mostly between I-20 and I-26 from the Savannah River on the Georgia state line to the Upstate along the N.C. line – to aggressively conserve water on their own, and some water systems imposed their own restrictions on washing cars and watering lawns.
Committee chairman Steve de Kozlowski has said the state does not impose mandatory restrictions on water consumption unless public health or resources are threatened, urging local water systems to act independently.
USDA officials say there is no deadline for Schafer to respond to the request. Several states across the country, including Hawaii, New Mexico and Oklahoma, have received federal disaster aid for crop losses because of drought this summer.
Agriculture ranks behind tourism as the No. 2 industry in South Carolina. It generates about $2 billion a year in sales not counting forestry, said Becky Walton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.
Earlier this week, state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said the cumulative effect of two years of drought has forced some cattle producers to sell off part of their herds because of problems getting hay.
One of those farmers, Joel Sudduth of Greer, said the emergency loans would come at a critical time for farmers in northwestern South Carolina.
“In general, we are suffering,” said Sudduth, who has cut his herd of cattle from 50 to about three dozen because it costs so much to feed the animals. And, because so many pastures have died out, Sudduth says he has to rely on hay to feed his animals, instead of letting them graze.
“People were hoping to use pasture, but most farmers can't afford to reseed,” said Sudduth, whose 90-acre family farm has been in business for three generations. “It's just going to be tough on everybody, especially on the young farmers who are starting out.”
Regardless of what happens with the federal aid, Sudduth says he and farmers like him will need more than just a short-term fix to hang on.
“Even if it started raining tomorrow, it will still take two years to recover,” he said.