Surrounded by tall, green flourishing corn plants in a 100-acre field, Kyle Daniel is in awe of this year’s booming crop in Georgetown County.
“Corn is golden this year,” said Daniel, director of Georgetown County’s Farm Service Agency. “For the guy that planted early, he’s going to ring the bell on this corn crop.”
That financial windfall will come at the expense of Midwest farmers, who will have little crop this season because of the worst drought in 60 years.
The consumer will also contribute a major piece of the money pie, because short supply and high demand will drive up grain prices not only for consumable corn, but for ethanol and animal feed, which is expected to also lead to increases in the cost of beef, poultry and eggs.
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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the price of corn has risen from $5 in May to $8 a bushel on Wednesday.
“Given that almost half of the corn grown in the world comes from what is considered the bread basket of the world, supplies are short and prospects of future supplies are dismal,” Daniel said. “This has generated a very strong demand for corn resulting in some of the highest corn prices in U.S. history.
“Local market prices [Wednesday] were $8 per bushel and I don’t see that figure going down much at all.”
This year’s crop grew out of warm days at the end of February and March that allowed local corn growers to plant early and avoid a late freeze. Then, Tropical Storm Beryl in May provided much-needed rain when the crop was filling out.
“Not only did that complete the perfect growing season, South Carolina experienced low temperatures in June of 60 degrees several mornings in a row,” Daniel said. “Cool nights are critical for pollination, so excellent pollination along with the perfect timing of rain were the key ingredients for this bumper crop of corn.”
Not all local farmers were fortunate enough to plant enough corn at the right time to have a good year, according to agriculture experts. Those who planted later in the year are struggling to keep their crop going now because the heat indices have been above 100 degrees several times in July.
“The corn crop has made a decent crop, it’s not a failure like last year when we did not have any corn in the county,” said Vicki Jordan, Horry County’s Farm Serve Agency director. “With corn crops, the ones that planted early enough, they’re not going to have a disaster, but they’re not going to make a booming crop. They are going to be OK with the corn crop, but we are still in the drought.”
Chad Burrows, a Pleasant Hill farmer, planted 40 acres of corn, 500 acres of cotton, 300 acres of soybeans and 61 acres of tobacco.
“The last three years I didn’t make any corn,” Burrows said. “I wish we had planted a lot more corn right now. I would rather have corn than cotton this year.
“Last year cotton was the ticket. We had good yield, good prices. Cotton has looked sick all year, but the last two weeks it has picked up a bit to save it.”
Even though Horry County’s drought status is normal and Georgetown County is incipient, the dry conditions have taken their toll on the area’s agriculture prospects.
“We had a little bit of rain and cooler temperatures early on, but now it is so dry,” Jordan said. “With temperatures up to 104 and 105, [many crops are] blistered and the rain has been sporadic.
“Corn is still in need of some rain to finish maturing. I still don’t think we are in a major disaster as far as drought like last year, which was bad.”
Jeff Owens, who planted 100 acres of corn, 600 acres of cotton, 150 acres of soybeans and 100 acres of tobacco in his Pleasant Hill fields in Georgetown County, said he went an extra step this year by installing a center-pivot irrigation system for his corn.
“Corn is hard to produce without a lot of water,” Owens said. “That’s the only reason I put in corn. We have drained two ponds, which have been replenished, for it.
“What’s under the pivots looks right good, but if you drive out past them you see where it dried out.”
Standing in Owens field with an ear of golden corn exposed, Daniel said: “This is really good corn. That’s some beautiful corn.”
Owens expects about 214 bushels per acre as his yield because he planted five inches apart on 38-inch rows in order to take advantage of the center pivot irrigation. It allowed him to put more plants in the ground, closer together.
“Corn has to have water and you have got to make a high yield,” Owens said. “Last year was a terrible year. Right now most of the crop is in fair condition. All in general it is better than last year.”
Locally, the drought doesn’t compare to the crop damages Midwest farmers are facing. Their plight will result in higher food prices for everyone later this year.
“When farmers are forced to feed $8 a bushel corn to poultry, swine and cattle, it obviously has to place tremendous pressure on food prices,” Daniel said. “Higher feed prices translate into higher production cost, which will likely be passed on to the consumer.
“You have to consider that hundreds of food products contain corn derivatives, so demand for corn will remain strong. In my opinion, until reserves are replenished to the point where supplies are comfortable, food prices will remain higher, which could be well into next year.”
In South Carolina, corn accounts for about $128 million in cash receipts and is the state’s fifth top commodity, according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture.
“Farming is truly a gamble,” Daniel said. “The risk associated with growing crops without irrigation is tremendous.
“Rarely, does a farmer experience good yields and good prices, but right now the local outlook is good.”