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Ronald Rabon’s family has been farming their Aynor property for four generations, but Mother Nature is getting in the way of the only job Rabon has ever known.
Rabon, the 63-year-old owner and operator of Double R Farms off Valley Forge Road, is facing a devastated crop yield for the third time in four years after Hurricane Florence brought copious rain and salt air onto his roughly 1,300-acre farm.
Early estimates suggest about $100 million in agricultural losses across South Carolina as a result of Florence, according to U.S. Rep. Tom Rice. Cotton, peanuts and soybeans are among the most impacted crops, and continued losses for farmers could mean the need for federal help to keep them operational.
Flooding destroyed more than 70 percent of Rabon’s cotton in 2015, when remnants of Hurricane Joaquin dumped a tremendous amount of rain on South Carolina. The following year, Hurricane Matthew did the same. The losses led Rabon to refinance about $200,000 in loans, and a successful 2017 only got him back to being broke, he said.
Rabon borrowed nearly $500,000 to work on this year’s crop — it was shaping up to be his finest one ever, his scout told him — but he said he will be lucky to salvage 20 percent to 30 percent of his cotton after Florence.
“I can’t keep refinancing,” Rabon told The Sun News Wednesday morning. “I’ll be digging a hole that I can’t live long enough to pay off.”
He has crop insurance, he said, but every time he makes a claim, his premium goes up and his coverage goes down.
Prior to 2015, his insurance covered about 900 pounds per acre, but now it’s only about 300 pounds, likely about $255 per acre, Rabon said. He added that his costs equate to about $600 per acre.
“Imagine working hard for 12 months and then finding out you’re in the hole (tens of thousands of dollars),” he said. “You probably wouldn’t be sticking around at that job.”
Horry County Councilman Al Allen, part-owner of a company that provides aerial spraying for agricultural businesses, said he’s afraid many local farms will be out of business soon unless the federal government offers help.
“They don’t need low-interest loans,” Allen said. “They need (a bailout) like they gave Wall Street (in 2008).”
Rice joined state Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers on Tuesday for an aerial tour surveying crop damage in Chesterfield, Florence, Horry, Marion, Dillon and Marlboro counties.
Dillon, Marion and Marlboro counties were the most widely impacted by Florence, according to a news release from the state Department of Agriculture.
“We must be certain that agriculture is at the table and included when we analyze the financial impact of Florence,” Weathers said in the release. “There are no more farm disaster programs that might have come to the rescue eight or ten years ago.”
Rice said he felt confident the federal government would be able to provide farmers some assistance.
The federal government offered South Carolina an agricultural relief package after 2015, but then-Gov. Nikki Haley wouldn’t take it, Rice said. Gov. Henry McMaster has indicated he’s more open to the assistance, Rice added.
Rabon won’t know for sure the impact Florence had on his cotton until it’s ready to be picked in three or four weeks, but he already noticed some discouraging signs while walking through the outskirts of his field Wednesday.
“It ain’t worth a crap,” he said, flinging a boll of cotton to the dirt as he explained the seeds had sprouted early, which would lead to rot.
He sells his cotton through a broker in Hilton Head that usually sells it to Cargill, a major American conglomerate. They’re used to him producing top-quality cotton, but that wasn’t the case in 2015 and 2016, Rabon said.
Rabon also farms soybeans, which he suspected were mostly fine, but he hasn’t been able to see those fields because Florence washed away some of the roads he uses to access them.
He has two sons that used to work for him, but they had to quit and take other jobs even before the series of natural disasters because commodity prices have dropped, and there’s not enough revenue to be gained for the three of them.
“When my toes turn up, I ain’t got a youngin to take over,” Rabon said, upset that Double R Farms wouldn’t stay in his family for a fifth generation. “They want to, but they can’t make a living.
“Our government better realize we feed this country,” he continued. “Just cause Ronald quits, I know the country won’t go hungry, but if every (farmer) quits, it will.”
David Weissman: @WeissmanMBO; 843-626-0305