The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday June 6th

North Carolina farmers lose $1.1 billion after Florence

Photo contributed by Heather Overton.
Buy Photos Photo contributed by Heather Overton.

Beyond flooding and road closures, Hurricane Florence stunted North Carolina's largest industry: agriculture.

Farmers lost far more in Hurricane Florence than during Hurricane Matthew, despite their preparation. 

The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services calculated losses using the percentage of crops still in the field in the 35 most highly impacted counties. 

Effects varied by geographic location and crop, but agricultural losses in North Carolina totaled $1.1 billion. Row crops like tobacco and soybeans accounted for the largest portion of agricultural losses at an estimated $986.6 million. 

Losses were expected to be significant because flooding affected the top six agricultural counties in the state: Sampson, Duplin, Union, Wayne, Robeson and Bladen.

Heather Overton, assistant director of public affairs at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said farmers started preparing for the storm well in advance of its landfall.

“A week before the storm hit, the governor issued an executive order that allowed trucks to work extended hours and carry heavier loads,” she said. “The goal for crops is to get what can be harvested in. For animals, it’s to move them either to slaughter or to another facility that is out of the path of the storm.”

Overton said crop producers harvested approximately 60 percent of tobacco and 75 percent of corn prior to the storm. Peanuts and sweet potatoes were not ready to harvest, so many of them stayed in the field. 

“Agriculture is our state’s number one industry,” she said. “Farmers worked really hard to get these animals and crops out of the way, and a lot of areas had unanticipated flooding.” 

Overton said flooding from Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Matthew affected similar areas, but Florence reached further inland. Because it's harvest time in North Carolina, the department anticipated significant losses. 

“The initial estimate for crop damage and livestock losses to North Carolina was $1.1 billion,” Overton said. “That number easily tops the $400 million that we saw following Hurricane Matthew."

Amy Cooke, professor at UNC's Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology, said repairing farms and cleaning up any pollution as a result of the storm will likely be a lengthy process.

“I would expect to get those hog farms up and get the lagoons repaired – that’s going to be a bit of a process,” she said. “For some, finding the funding is going to be difficult.”

Cooke said for some crops, it’s hard to determine the full extent of Florence’s impact. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen yet,” she said. “For example, sweet potatoes – they haven’t been harvested, and we won’t know how many have rotted until they’re harvested. The full effects will be a little bit slower to determine.”

Overton said the last three years have been extremely wet in North Carolina, and this year many crops went into the field late due to significant rainfall in July.

“It’s always hard, and weather is just one of those things you can’t control,” she said. 

Livestock was affected by the storm as well, with losses of 4.1 million poultry and 5,500 hogs. These bodies are disposed of in several different ways, Overton said. 

“The way that poultry is handled, most of the time, is by composting them on-site,” she said. “Swine are either properly disposed of at landfills or rendered. There’s contractors that are working with the state to carry the swine to landfills in sealed trucks with covers.”

Overton said the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spent the first days of the storm in rescue mode, focusing on getting feed to animals that were cut off from normal vehicles. In the weeks following the storm, their focus has shifted to disaster recovery.

“Our goal now is to connect farmers with the resources they need to recover from this event,” she said.

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