Ag leaders in Johnston County have pegged losses from Hurricane Matthew at $19 million, and they say that number will likely rise.
The $19 million estimate doesn’t include the loss of any livestock or damage to equipment, buildings and infrastructure like farm roads and irrigation systems, said Bryant Spivey, director of the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service.
After the storm, Spivey said, farmers scrambled to salvage what they could of crops still in the fields, and sunny, dry weather helped.
“With the weather we’ve had, we’re going to be in a lot better shape than we thought at first,” he said. “Farmers are out there way quicker than I thought and are able to get things harvested.”
A long-term concern is erosion caused by Matthew’s heavy rains, Spivey said. Without soil, farmers can’t grow crops.
Johnston ranks eighth in the state in farm income. The county ranks second in tobacco, vegetables, fruits and nuts, trailing only Sampson County in those categories. Johnston has about 110,000 acres of cropland, producing corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, tobacco, peanuts, sweet potatoes and other commodities.
“Agriculture is tremendously important to Johnston County,” Spivey said. “We grow very high-value crops, though we may not have the most acreage.”
Those high-value crops include tobacco and sweet potatoes, two of the most vulnerable to storms.
The good news is that when Matthew slogged through Johnston, only about 5 percent of the county’s tobacco crop remained in the field, Spivey said. Mature tobacco still in the field suffered wind damage and saw its ripening hastened, he said.
“It just goes down hill pretty rapidly,” Spivey said of storm-damaged tobacco.
Tobacco curing in barns was safe – so long as the power stayed on, Spivey said. “We had a lot of power outages, and the tobacco in the barn can only maintain its quality and integrity for a short time without power,” he said.
Some farmers have generators large enough and numerous enough to keep the power on in their tobacco barns. But not everyone.
“It takes a tremendous generator capacity for a tobacco barn,” Spivey said. “Not everyone had that.”
The worst losses, Spivery said, were below-ground crops like sweet potatoes and peanuts.
A farmer can safely store a harvested sweet potato for up to 12 months.
“That’s what’s allowed the sweet potato industry in North Carolina to grow,” Spivey said. “We don’t want people only thinking about eating sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But if we want people to eat them year round, we have to supply them year round.”
That means keeping the stored potatoes at a constant temperature and humidity, which was hard with power outages and heavy rain from Matthew.
While Johnston farmers had harvested about half of the sweet potato crop before Matthew, they won’t know the condition of the remaining harvest until they can get in their fields, Spivey said.
“It remains to be seen how well they will hold up and how many the growers will have to cull,” he said. “It could be months before we know how that will go.”
Peanuts were perhaps the hardest hit by Matthew, since they were already mature when the storm arrived.
Nuts that fall from the vine can’t be harvested by the machines farmers use, Spivey said, and Matthew delayed the harvest by a least a week, he said. But with dry weather since, Spivey said he had high hopes.
Soybeans faced a similar plight. After wet conditions damaged seeds last year, Spivey said, farmers had planted beans that matured quicker, leaving a mature crop ripe for Matthew to damage.
“It was terrible timing all around,” he said.
Any crops covered in floodwaters are a total loss, Spivey said. “We don’t send those to market,” he said, glad that few Johnston crops found themselves underwater.
More than a week after the storm, Spivey said he had heard of few livestock losses, just a few hogs here and there. And while some farmers had to move cattle from or through floodwaters, he hadn’t heard of any cattle losses either.
“South of us there were some poultry farms that were just devastated,” Spivey said. “I really feel for them, but I know the state has a plan to deal with that.”
Spivey said Johnston farmers had reported about $1 million in structural damage, but that numbers doesn’t include washed-out farm roads or breached pond dams. And he’s waiting to hear reports of damage to farm equipment, including irrigation systems.
“I’ve never seen that much water come down like that,” he said. “All of our farms were affected to one extent or another.”
It’ll be winter before farmers will know if they’ll have a feed shortage, Spivey said. “Flood-damaged hay won’t be usable for livestock feed, so we’ll get a better assessment of feed shortages this winter,” he said.
In sheer numbers, $19 million sounds like a huge loss, Spivey said, but Johnston produces as much as $303 million in total agricultural income.
And not all farms suffered heavy losses, Spivey said. “Some were fine; others were devastated,” he said. “It’s hard to apply a broad brush to it.”
Spivey encouraged farmers to look to their insurance policies and make their claims early. He also advised them to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency for disaster assistance.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett
To contact the Johnston County Cooperative Extension, call 919-989-5380.
To contact the USDA Farm Services Agency in Johnston County, call 919-934-7156.