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Drought devastates local farmers, businesses: With no relief in sight, those who depend on rain for their livelihood are increasingly desperate

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

It’s been more than a week since Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue raised some eyebrows with his atypical approach to getting rain to fall in the drought-ravaged state. With no rainfall in site and the lake supplying Atlanta’s water rapidly dwindling, Perdue joined 250 citizens in a last ditch effort to combat the drought — he bowed his head and prayed.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in the Southeast, the situation is increasingly just that — desperate. The region has been in the grips of a severe drought since last winter, and with another dry winter forecast, there’s little sign of it letting up.

To those who depend on the rain for their livelihood, the effect of the exceptionally dry weather is devastating. The drought is jeopardizing what the NC Rural Economic Development Center estimates are $37 million agricultural industries in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.

“Folks that their business doesn’t depend on the weather, they know it’s dry, but they don’t really pay attention. But due to the fact that we deal with it every day...this is really bad. It’s terrible,” said John Field, a landscaper whose business, Haywood Landscapes, has been hit hard by the drought.


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The Landscaper

Field’s troubles began last winter, when dry conditions prevented newly planted hollies and evergreens from taking root. An April freeze killed off more plants, but Field says the freeze, though partly accountable, wasn’t the main cause of the plants dying — they were already stressed out from dry conditions that had pervaded through the winter.

The summer offered little relief.

“Basically, we strongly recommended folks not plant very much through the summer,” Field said. The risk was too great, and the company stood to lose money if large planting jobs didn’t take.

Like many landscaping businesses, Haywood Landscapes will replace plants they installed that die within a year at no cost to the customer. Conditions forced them to amend that guarantee. Now, the company requires clients to pay Haywood Landscapes to come water plants the company has installed.

“You get $30,000 to $40,000 planting jobs that I can’t guarantee without water. The truth of the matter is, if the plants don’t get water, they won’t make it,” Field said.

If the company had to pay for the watering themselves, they’d be shelling out a huge amount of money — Field estimates the amount of watering required for new plants has doubled during the drought.

“The cost is in time. It’s just taking more and more time to (water). We’ve not been getting those every two week rains. Up until recently, there wasn’t even a good dew in the morning. Everything’s just crisp,” Field said.

The worst effects of the dry weather on plants probably haven’t been seen yet.

“Where it’s really going to start seeing a big effect is next spring, because a lot of plants that are being installed now, which is typically a great time of year to plant, they’re going to have a hard winter if they don’t get water,” Fields said.

Financially, Haywood Landscapes is one of the lucky ones. The company does other things besides planting.

“If we hadn’t been such a diversified landscape construction company, then our sales would be down tremendously this year,” Field said.

Others haven’t been so lucky. Landscapers in WNC get a number of plants from suppliers and nurseries out of the region that are suffering greatly. In Atlanta, Field said, landscaping companies have virtually shut down. The cost of plants already is increasing throughout the region.

“If it continues, the plant sales and plant installation sector is definitely going to be down,” Field said.

Haywood Landscapes is a private business, and it’s hard for them to secure funding assistance to help save their bottom line.


The cattle farmer

When long-time cattle farmers like Neil Stamey use the word “chaos” to describe the state of the livestock industry, there is little doubt the situation is a dire one. Stamey estimates that hay production is at half of normal levels; cooperative extension agent Bill Skelton puts the number at closer to 25 percent.

Normally, farmers would seek feed from somewhere outside their usual supply area.

“Unfortunately, the drought is region-wide, so that has been difficult to do,” Skelton said.

Farmers are being forced to mix limited hay supply with “fillers” like corn stalks and peanut hay, obtained from the eastern part of the state, Stamey said. Those alone wouldn’t provide enough protein to feed the animals.

Seeking hay from out-of-state, though, is expensive. Rising fuel costs make this an impossible venture for many farmers.

“Transportation is so high you can’t afford to haul it in,” Stamey explained.

The Golden Leaf Foundation, a non-profit that aids communities formerly dependent on tobacco farming, made $500,000 available to farmers in the form of grants to assist in transporting corn stalk from the eastern part of the state. Ingles grocery stores are also helping farmers by donating $7 for every roll of hay purchased in Clay and Henderson counties.

Still, the aid isn’t enough to significantly alleviate the problem. Because of a lack of food, farmers are being forced to cull their herds, or sell them before they are able to get the best price for them at the market.

“I’ve known people who have sold two-thirds of their cows,” Stamey said.

Such sales represent a huge loss to the farmer. A cow sells for $40 per hundred pounds of weight, and a calf can fetch up to $8,000. Worse, many farmers are being forced send their animals to market early overloading the auction block and dropping prices.

“Farmers have spent years building these herds up and maximizing their yield, but they’re getting squeezed and decreasing their herd size,” Skelton said.

“The other option is to come through the winter with 10 to 20 animals in very poor condition,” said Skelton.

A recent industry report Skelton read stated that the region needs more than 30 inches of rain to even begin to ameliorate the drought.

“I’ve never remembered a drought this long here. It’s going to take a lot of water for us to recover. The economic impact will be serious — maybe in the millions — for the industry,” Stamey said.

“We’re in pretty dire straits economically,” Skelton agreed.


The trout farmer

At this time next year, Matt Rhea, owner of Sorrells Creek Trout Farms in Bethel, won’t have a single fish ready to sell. The drought has slashed his water supply so drastically that Rhea simply didn’t have enough room in his tanks for new, smaller fish.

“The water is so low I’ve only got half of the raceways that I can put fish in. If I’ve got these raceways with thousands of fish and I have to pack them in five, where do you put them?” Rhea said.

A trout needs 12 to 14 inches of room to grow into a restaurant-sized fish, Rhea said.

With his fish crammed into half the tanks they normally would occupy, Rhea knew there wouldn’t be room for smaller fish to grow.

Now, he’ll be forced to purchase adult fish if he hopes to have any fish at all to sell next season.

“It costs a whole lot more. It’s hard enough to make a living farming, but when you have to basically buy a full-grown fish, you can’t afford to hardly do that. That’s even if you can find fish,” Rhea said. Rhea and other local trout farmers have talked about traveling to West Virginia and Pennsylvania to obtain trout stock.

“I’m making contacts with other farms and we’re trying to get people to find some fish. There’s talk about going out of state to get some fish and meet their markets,” Rhea said.

“With the impact of lost inventory due to low waters of this year, it’ll be a while before we get back online,” he said.

The drought’s impact on North Carolina’s trout industry — the second largest supplier of trout in the country — has been devastating.

“I think this is unprecedented for the trout industry in the mountains. I don’t think that trout farms in WNC have ever seen streams this low,” Rhea said.

For small farmers like Rhea, who rely heavily on local restaurants for demand, there is worry that clients could go elsewhere if they don’t produce.

“I hope not to lose business. If I can’t supply trout and they want to serve trout, they’ll try to go elsewhere,” Rhea said. “Right now we’re praying hard that we can find fish and inventory. If we don’t have fish, we don’t make it next year.”

Rhea worries that the troubles caused by the drought are far from over for the trout industry.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for trout farmers because if we don’t have a really good, wet winter, next year might be even worse.

“It’s going to take time and it’s going to take some water, but it’s going to take not just a little bit of water. We need such a rainy winter and spring to build these water tables back up. It’s going to take quite a bit,” Rhea said.

Trout farmers are in a tough spot when it comes to qualifying for government aid. A federal farming assistance bill is written such that it refers to putting crops in the ground, not fish in the water.

Help could potentially come through low-interest government loans. Rhea is about to start paying back similar loans that he received after the 2004 floods that wreaked havoc on farms in Haywood County. Federal disaster loans are currently available through the U.S. Small Business Administration for small businesses, including trout farms, hit by the drought.


The boat dock owner

This summer, Fontana Lake made headlines when an unprecedented drawdown by Tennessee Valley Authority, which controls the lake, brought levels to nearly 50 feet below normal. In Swain County, Alarka Boat Dock and Greasy Branch Marina were forced to shut their doors before Labor Day, typically one of the biggest money making weekends of the season.

In the end, Alarka owner Tony Sherrill estimates he lost almost $50,000.

“It not only hurt because of us having to close early, it actually slowed things down when we were open,” Sherrill said.

The loss Sherrill reported is mainly from marina rental business. It doesn’t count the numerous visitors to Sherrill’s dock or the other two boat docks who would have spent money in Swain County at restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions. In all, Swain Commissioner David Monteith puts the loss at closer to $2 million — a significant number for one of the poorest counties in the state.

TVA attributes the drawdown of the lake to the drought. Water had to be taken from the lake to supply hydropower to parts of Western North Carolina and Tennessee to mitigate flooding, and recreation is secondary to these pressing needs, said TVA spokesman Gil Francis.

Fontana Lake businesses and the surrounding community are stepping up to combat the problem. Earlier this year, Swain County officials traveled to Washington, D.C. to talk with government officials about ways to alleviate the problem. Last month, the Fontana Lake Users Association held a meeting with representatives from Sen. Richard Burr (D-NC), Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) to talk about the drawdown.

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