Farmers suffer huge loss

Staff WriterAugust 30, 2011 

Hurricane Irene caused hundreds of millions of dollars in crop damage, leaving farms in Eastern North Carolina devastated and putting a big dent in the state's projected agricultural output for the year, N.C. Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler said Monday.

Some farms likely suffered a near-total loss this year after tender crops, stressed by weeks of drought, were battered by hurricane-force winds and flooded by storm surge.

Heavy damage was reported as far inland as Harnett and Johnston counties.

The arrival of the Category 1 storm was especially ill-timed, as farmers were preparing to harvest tobacco, corn, cotton and other crops.

The storm-battered region east of Interstate 95 is the state's breadbasket and home to the bulk of North Carolina's $70 billion-a-year agriculture industry. Most of the state's corn, tobacco, soy, hog and turkey operations are found in the flat, sandy strip that follows the coastline and extends inland more than 100 miles.

"There will be total losses in some areas," Troxler said at a news conference Monday morning.

Troxler toured the area and spoke with affected farmers Sunday, but he said the full extent of the damage and financial loss from high winds and flooding won't be known for at least several weeks. But damage to the $750-million-a-year tobacco crop alone will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, he noted.

Most damage will be simple crop destruction, but power outages will also cause tobacco leaf damage in curing barns and poultry deaths at farms that experience failure of emergency backup generators.

Randy Edwards, who grows tobacco on 500 acres in Wendell, is hoping he can save half his crop. He has been going on two hours sleep a night as he and his workers try to keep five emergency diesel generators running to keep air flowing through the curing barns.

Farmers are typically federally insured for up to 65 percent of their losses. But the insurance doesn't cover tobacco that's been harvested and is being cured.

In Selma, where Ray Boswell grows 200 acres of tobacco, the plants were knocked flat like bowling pins.

Some still have leaves, but they are shredded and beat up. Raising the plant into a vertical position is time consuming and not possible with that much acreage, he said.

"We don't know if the tobacco companies will buy this tobacco because it's blistered," he said.

A federal declaration of disaster areas would allow farmers to take advantage of low-interest loans to tide them over until next season.

Closer to the coast, farmers will easily sustain losses of 80 percent to 90 percent of their crops, predicted Loren Fisher, a professor of crop science at N.C. State University.

"It's bad," Boswell said. "In Eastern North Carolina, there's not going to be much tobacco left."

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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