Hugh Weathers | Impacts of S.C.’s drought

Unlike the success of our American athletes at the London Olympics, the drought is an unpleasant story we’ve all watched in the summer of 2012. From the evening newscasts to the paper you read with your morning coffee, it seems hard to escape the devastating news.

Currently South Carolina is in drought status. Nine of the state’s 46 counties are in a moderate to severe drought, but the rest are classified as incipient. When it comes to rain, overall we have fared better than the hard-hit states in the Midwest. Our weekly report for crop moisture index shows a majority of the state falling in the slightly dry to favorably moist range, with the majority of the U.S. falling under the abnormally dry to severely dry category. These statistics are good for showing trends but the gist is simply that it is painful to watch a drought unfold on so many acres of our crops.

Right now, more than half of corn, cotton and peanut crops in South Carolina are currently rated in good or excellent condition. While this gives optimism for growers of those crops, South Carolina is a corn-deficit state feeding our livestock and poultry. In the Midwest, it’s the extremely dry “I-states” of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa that are the major corn and grain producers.

And that brings us to the other side of the farmer coin. Feed is always the largest expense for livestock and poultry producers. With a drought-diminished corn crop in the Midwest, along with other demands on corn, comes higher costs for feed.

Naturally consumers wonder what impact the drought will have at the grocery store and restaurants when buying milk, meat, poultry, or pork. Given the current crop conditions and without significant improvement before harvest, there is the potential for an increase in food prices. That increase could be seen as early as this fall and as we move into 2013. Along with rising gas prices and a troubled economy, I know this can be a discouraging combination.

Each year when a farmer plants his/her crops or decides to increase herd size, there are always risks. They include risks like any other business – cost of inputs, credit availability, a stable labor supply, and market fluctuations. But, watching the drought take its toll this summer, we are reminded of the unique risks that face the American farmer.

I hope the drought has one more “impact.” At the same time we see its devastating effect on farmers’ lives, we walk the aisles of any grocery store, order at any restaurant, or send our children to school knowing they will be properly fed and we see minimal changes. Please let this drought be a reminder of just how fortunate we are to live in a country where the American farmer is so efficient and resilient, and has been for many years. Remember that it is just over one percent of America’s population that grows the agricultural products that feed our country, as well as a population around the globe that has an increasing appetite.

Our agricultural industry is strong in our state and across the United States. Not just in dollars but in resiliency, sustainability, and capacity. We don’t often think about that as we shop for tomatoes or prepare dinner. The industry has survived other tough years and droughts, and it will survive this one. After normal crops are harvested in 2013 and food prices return to previous levels like they always have, I hope the drought of 2012 still has a lasting impact on our appreciation for the American farmer.

Weathers is South Carolina’s Commissioner of Agriculture.