COPE, S.C. — Big, beefy Edd Bonnette reared back in a chair in the wood-paneled kitchen of his farmhouse and recalled, with ironic delight, the good old days of the droughts of '77 and '81.
"Back then, if you was a farmer in trouble, it seemed the federal government couldn't throw enough money at you," said Bonnette, 51, a third-generation farmer with 1,800 acres here in Orangeburg County. "I got a $315,000 disaster loan in 1977 and another one for $225,000 in 1981. Both of them really helped me to build up this place."
Well Running Dry
This year, in contrast, as Bonnette and other Southeastern farmers devastated by the worst drought in more than a century are painfully learning, the federal well is likely to come up pretty dry itself.
Despite the promises of aid that Washington made to farmers in the heat of the summer, now, as federal budget deficits continue to climb, fiscal austerity is the watchword. The days of generous bail-outs and liberal loans for disaster assistance appear to be gone with the wind.
"With the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act as the guide to spending, farm programs are prime targets because of the enormous amount of money shelled out in the past," said Gene Marsh, a University of Alabama specialist in agricultural economics and law. "The federal government is not going to be anywhere near as good-hearted to drought-stricken farmers this year as it was before."
That is especially bad news for the many financially overextended farmers who desperately needed--but did not get--a good 1986 harvest to help pull them through the worst economic slump in agriculture since the Great Depression. It is certain to spell the end of farming for some of them, particularly those with row crops rather than livestock.
In Alabama, for instance, agricultural officials estimate that the state may lose 10% of its farmers as a result of this year's weather. The long Southern drought, which was compounded by a record heat wave that often sent temperatures over the 100-degree mark for days on end, seared a nearly $2-billion path of destruction through an arc of states from Louisiana upward to Virginia.
Rainfall was off as much as 60% in some areas, decimating crops, parching pasturelands and shrinking irrigation ponds. Even now, as farmers get ready to plant their winter grazing, many areas are still not getting enough rain.
$815 Million in Losses
In three of the hardest-hit states--Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina--the combined drought losses will total more than $815 million after all the bills are in, according to a joint study by the University of Georgia, Clemson University and the University of North Carolina. That figure represents a 15% cut in the total anticipated farm income this year for the three states.
During the summer, President Reagan made repeated pledges to aid drought-stricken areas. At a campaign stop in Columbia, S.C. in late July, for instance, he said: "The drought is reaching tragic proportions--one of the worst in the century--and I want you to know that our Administration stands ready to help."
But when the Administration aid package was announced on Aug. 1 by Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng, farmers were less than impressed. One key item--a 10% increase in the advances on subsidies due row-crop farmers this year--was widely denounced as next to useless.
"It hardly amounted to anything for the individual farmer," said Hal Harris, a Clemson agricultural economist. "Besides, to say that it was a drought-relief measure is stretching the imagination, because farmers in the Midwest who had bumper crops were eligible for it too."
'Hot Lines' Assailed
In one sign of the often vociferous political wrangling over drought aid, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and South Carolina's three Democratic congressmen--all of whom were up for reelection this year--accused the Administration of providing little more than "task forces and hot lines" to combat the problem.
On Capitol Hill, a House-approved drought-relief measure would have authorized $530 million in aid, but it was never considered by the Senate. Similar provisions were later attached to a Senate proposal to raise the federal debt ceiling. The debt measure died, however, after disagreements between the House and Senate on unrelated issues.
Federal crop insurance, whose premiums farmers pay for out of their own pockets, will help offset the drought losses of some producers. Farmers in Georgia and the Carolinas, for example, are expected to collect an aggregate of about $90 million in crop indemnity payments for the toll in their wheat, corn, cotton, soybeans and other row crops, according to agricultural extension specialists.