If Hurricane Irma smacks Charleston next week, it would be the third catastrophic weather event local farmers have endured in three years.
“It would be crippling,” says Sara Clow, general manager of food hub GrowFood Carolina. “First of all, in the Lowcountry proper, it has been an incredibly wet summer. So we’re already dealing with some pretty saturated soil which leads to higher pest populations. We’re in a not great scenario.”
Hard and soft squash and pumpkins are almost certainly at risk, she says. Not to mention the fall crops many farmers who work with GrowFood have just planted. And, of course, the honey producers, too. “Apparently it hurts the honey production,” says Clow. Even salt harvesters aren’t immune. “Seven days of cloudy weather blows the production on salt. Plus, if it floods, the water is so much less salty, they have to gather twice much.” And that’s not to mention meat production. As Hurricane Harvey in Texas demonstrated, as lots of farmers don’t have anywhere to take the herds.
For barbecue impresario and farmer Jimmy Hagood, an Irma direct hit at his Lavington Farms could wipe out his Charleston Gold Aromatic Rice crop. If that happens, it would be the second year in a row of total rice crop loss.
“Our rice crop is the best it’s been,” says Hagood. “We’ve never harvested this much before. We did everything right this year. We flooded the fields — the Charleston Gold Rice was created so it could be an upland rice and grown in dry condition, but we tried the more traditional flooding method this year and it worked well.” But Hagood’s 30 acres, which is just on the cusp of being ready to harvest, is in jeopardy now and he fears a repeat of Hurricane Matthew
When the 1,000 year flood hit in 2015, Hagood’s team stepped into action getting the rice out just before it hit. Last year was a different story.
“We tried our best, but we were not able to get it out. It was a total loss. We were able to get in there for one half of a day or so with storm clouds coming. This year, I don’t know. It all depends on the tidal surge.”
Lavington Farms sits two miles off of 17 in Green Pond, S.C. His rice fields are inland but that doesn’t mean their safe from flooding. “If we don’t get the huge surge, we’ve got everything drained. We can take 8-10 inches,” he says. “But if that’s combined with wind, then the combine can’t pick it up.”
To add insult to injury, it’s not just the investment loss — $3,000 in seed, plus fertilizer, man hours, all told about $10,000, then the cost of a combine — that gives Hagood pause. It’s the years of research and development to restore the lost crop that hurts the most.
“It’s an interesting passion of mine and for my brothers and cousins, but you know it also takes resources way from other things or adds to those other things,” says Hagood, who adds that a family meeting is planned for later this month to review all of the farms’ projects. That said, he’s quick to defend his efforts. “We’ve got the perfect set up to grow it. It’s not like we’re trying to force something that shouldn’t be done.”
Mother Nature, however, has a wicked way of reminding farmers who’s really in charge. And Hagood will be the first to tell you that it was two back-to-back hurricanes in 1910 and 1911 that ended rice growing in the South Carolina. “That was up until about 15 years ago,” he adds “and we’re playing a part in that.”
And it’s that determined, circle of life attitude might be the one thing that keeps Hagood planting Charleston Gold, even if he loses it all again to Irma.
Like Clow says, “That’s the thing about farmers, these are the most resilient people you’ll ever meet in your life.”