DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ A South Carolina farmer who said his drought-stricken operation was saved by donations of Iowa hay arrived in the state Friday to say thanks.

''My farm would have been gone,'' said Tom Tranthom of Greenville, S.C. ''I would have been working in a factory making barbecue machines.''

Tranthom, 45, and his wife, Brenda, were greeted at Des Moines International Airport by farmer Peter Owenson, who sparked the idea of the Iowa haylift to aid farmers in the South struggling with one of the worst dry spells in history.

Owenson, who had seen a network television portrayal of Tranthom's plight, said he was amazed at the response his idea got.

''I never expected it to be this big,'' Owenson said. ''The results have been amazing.''

South Carolina farmers got about 2,600 tons of hay from Iowa and other states.

Tranthom said there was little doubt that without the hay, the dairy operation he runs would have gone under. He said he still owed money on drought loans he obtained after a 1983 dry spell and was within three weeks of deciding to get out of the business.

He owns 94 acres of his 210-acre farm and rents the rest.

Putting his 200 head of cattle through a blistering hot and dry summer and another winter without feed would have been needless torture, he said.

Tranthom planned travel around northwestern Iowa during the Labor Day weekend thanking farmers for the hay they donated. He also plans to attend a Labor Day rodeo in Dayton and will meet with Gov. Terry Branstad in Boone.

Tranthom said the haylift sparked memories of days when farmers would pitch in to help each other build barns and harvest crops.

''It's something our children can be proud of,'' he said. ''I think it's been a while'' since similar efforts were launched.

Tranthom said he had not lost any cattle because of the drought, though some had lost weight and others had been culled.

The haylift is continuing, albeit with occasional transportation snarls caused by the distances involved, he said.

''It's wonderful to have a friend, but 1,150 miles is a long handshake,'' Tranthom said.