Brown's Bar-B-Q was packed Friday morning as farmers gathered to learn from officials about how to apply for SC farm aid.
The meeting was the first of 19 that will be held over the next few weeks as the agricultural sector looks to rebound following last fall's historic flooding, which wiped out an estimated $400 million in crops.
Farmers who incurred a 40 percent loss of agricultural commodities are eligible for grants up to $100,000 under a $40 million aid package passed by the legislature in late May.
Rep. Roger Kirby, a Democrat from District 61, co-sponsored the legislation and said he came to the meeting as "my whole district is ag. This is an important thing for a lot of my constituents."
Kirby was glad the first meeting was held in what he called "the heart of the farm belt in the Pee Dee."
"The intent is not to make every farmer whole. We wanted to help as many as we could with limited resources," he said. "It's more intended to help small family farms that are on the brink of disaster."
While taking a mid-meeting break, Cliff Barron said "probably about 70 percent" of his row crops were destroyed by the October flooding. Cultivating about 1,000 acres in Johnsonville, the 36-year-old farmer focuses on corn, beans and wheat. Drought conditions last year had already taken a severe toll on his corn before the historic deluge.
"All our hopes were on the beans and next thing you know, we got 27 inches of rain in three days," he said. "It was frustrating - we had good crops in the field."
Once he gets all his documentation squared away, he'll apply for aid.
"Things look better" this year, said Barron, who's farmed for 15 years. "A good-looking corn crop - beans looking pretty average. Things look up a little bit."
Bill Wallace isn't sure he'll apply until he plugs his numbers into the formula that determines his actual losses vs. expected revenue.
"I'm borderline," said the 61-year-old, who farms about 140 acres of corn and soybeans near Turbeville.
He knows several farmers with heavy losses who had to quit. He hasn't had to borrow money to purchase equipment and has been able to finance seed purchases, whereas fertilizer and chemicals have to paid for up front.
"It's just hard. It's a struggle and will take awhile to bounce back," he said. "Sometimes you want to throw your hands up and walk away."
Still, he knows farmers like himself "have to keep on going."
"Right now there's a bumper crop of corn," he said, "but my fields are still wet and we can't plant beans. We've put down some but not much."
Hugh Weathers showed up at the well-known barbecue restaurant toward the end of the meeting.
"I want to hear what's on our farmer's minds," said Weathers, the state's secretary of agriculture. "I'm going to go to as many meetings as I can."
Though the entire program has been launched fairly quickly - the legislature overrode Gov. Nikki Haley's veto on May 24 -- Weathers hopes for as little bureaucracy as possible.
"This whole thing took about 45 days," he said, referring to the agriculture department planning for implementation of the aid. "In another 45 days we hope to be writing checks but it depends on meetings like this."
For more information about SC Farm Aid, check out https://agriculture.sc.gov/.