ENC Farmers Cope With Significant Crop Loss

Oct 30, 2015

The excessive rain caused lodging of sorghum in this field in Richlands.
Credit N.C. Department of Agriculture

Agriculture is the number one industry in North Carolina, contributing $78 billion dollars to the State’s economy.  Much of the food produced in our state comes from our region, which was recently pounded with heavy rainfall, accumulating to more than 20 inches in some areas.  It’s an agricultural crisis here… Director of the State Farm Service Agency Bob Etheridge estimates millions of dollars worth of damages in eastern North Carolina.

“Every county east of I-95 but one sent in indication of damage with this storm.  So that tells you what the impact is going to be in terms of loss once we get the numbers in.  And it ranged anywhere from 10 to 50 percent in some counties depending on the commodity, whether it was cotton or peanuts or soybeans, etc.”

October is when most farmers harvest their crops.  But the soggy fields have made it difficult for farmers like Kenneth Fann.

“Potatoes I guess particularly were the hardest hit. We had 12 days of rain which gave us at least two weeks that we practically couldn’t do anything in the fields as far as harvest goes.”

Kenneth is part owner of the 5,500 acre family owned and operated Fann Farms in Sampson County.  He estimates that he could lose about half of his sweet potatoes due to the eight inches of rainfall that affected Salemburg. 

Soybeans sprouting in the pod in Onslow County.
Credit N.C. Department of Agriculture

“It’s too be determined as to whether it is a sizable crop or not.  We harvested and put it in the barns. But there’s a lot of moisture.  A sweet potato would store for almost a year, but when you have these adverse conditions on it hinders the ability for it to be stored and properly processed.”

North Carolina has been the number one sweet potato producer in the United States since 1971, but that title could be in jeopardy due to this season’s wet weather.   In addition to taking a hit on his sweet potato crop, Fann says all of his fields were flooded, tobacco was blown over, and peanuts knocked to the ground.

“We lost a lot of them.  When we went to harvest the crop, with all the rain, the vines had deteriorated to the point where they would just shake off on the ground and you couldn’t get them up into the combine.”

From large agricultural operations to small farms, Fann is among many eastern North Carolina farmers dealing with the aftermath of flooding.  That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 19 counties, most east of I-95 as primary natural disaster areas due to the damages and loss of crops.  An additional 25 also qualify because of their proximity to the primary disaster areas. Farm operators in these counties are now eligible for low interest emergency loans. Director of the State Farm Service Agency Bob Etheridge says the first step in applying for emergency loans is visiting your county Farm Service Agency office.

“Employees there will help them work through the process and through the insurance and then if they have a problem, they can come to us. Go to the banker, the banker may say that we need that to be guaranteed and we’re in the position through USDA to help guarantee or make direct loans.  And for some folks we can do what’s a micro-loan now, up to $50,000 to help folks have operating money.”

Farm records, receipts and pictures of damage and losses can help expedite assistance.  Low-interest emergency loans of up to $500,000 can be used to pay all or part of production costs associated with the disaster year, pay essential family living expenses, and reorganize the farming operation.  Farmers have until June 21st, 2016 to apply for loans to help cover part of their actual losses.

“I was out all last Friday, spent all day visiting farmers really in the southeast in Columbus, Duplin, Bladen and Sampson counties.  I talked to one young farmer he looked at his cotton and figured he was going to lose somewhere between 50 and 65 percent of his production.”

The rain caused cotton seed in eastern North Carolina to sprout in the boll, affecting the quality of the crop.
Credit N.C. Department of Agriculture

Cotton is another crop hit hard during the storm.  First, it can’t be picked when the seeds are softened by the rain.  And when it isn’t harvested, the seeds evenutally sprout, ruining the lint and making seeds unusable.  Johnthan Ward runs the Tri-County Cotton Gin in Mount Olive.  He says he’s noticing a lot less cotton being harvested this season.

“From what I’m seeing, most of the stuff that was sprayed before the storm is worse than what was sprayed after.  We have a whole lot of hardlock.  We haven’t picked enough right now to give you a good idea of what we are going to get, but I figure we lost about 40 percent.”

There’s not much Ward can do this season.  With less cotton being harvested, there’s less cotton to process, and that means his company doesn’t make money.

“We just see what next year brings is all we can do right now. But these farmers are going to have some help, with the inputs they have right now, and with the price where it’s at, you have to have a big yield to come out, and they’re not going to get the big yield this year.”

It’s been a difficult year for farmers. A cold wet spring meant crops got in the ground late.  That was followed by a hot, dry summer that reduced production.  And the wet autumn has made it difficult to harvest crops.  To make matters worse, Etheridge says crops overall just aren’t bringing in as much money as they used to. 

“Two years ago, let me give you an example, soybeans were say $13 a bushel.  Now, they’re about $7.50.  Corn was $7 something, now it’s $3.50, $3.60.  The prices are half of what they were.”

Etheridge says farmers in eastern North Carolina and across the state will realize a drop in their income this year.   He says this likely will have a trickledown effect in local communities.

“If a farmer comes up at the end of the year and has a very narrow margin, of return on his profit, then he has to go borrow money to run next year, and that money means he won’t buy new equipment, he won’t buy a new truck, he won’t buy a new car, he may not invest in some of the things he was going to invest in.”

Many local farmers have planted multiple crops to maximize their profit.  Vic Swinson, owner of Swinson Farms in Duplin County decided to grow mostly peanuts this season because they are more cost effective than tobacco or corn.  

A closeup of peanuts on Dan Ward’s farm in Bladen County. Ward estimates he lost up to 80 percent of his peanut crop because of the excessive rainfall.
Credit N.C. Department of Agriculture

  “We combined the field the other day that we should have got three and half trailers off of.  And we got three-quarters of one trailer.”

He says different fields have different losses. Some experienced about 25% to 30% loss of peanuts, while other fields were completely wiped out.

“We’ve also had some late leaf spot come in.  So when the leaf falls off, so does the peanut.  So, we’ve had a little bit of everything happen to us with this late weather.”

Swinson hasn’t applied for federal disaster assistance yet because he’s not finished harvesting.  But he did say that it probably wouldn’t be enough to cover the losses he incurred.  Right now, Swinson like many other farmers in eastern North Carolina are using the cool, sunny autumn days to salvage the rest of this year’s harvest, and keeping their fingers crossed that next season will be better.  

To see a list of counties that qualify for federal disaster assistance, go to: 

http://www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/newsReleases?mystate=nc&area=stnewsroom&subject=stnr&topic=landing&newstype=stnewsrel&type=detail&item=stnr_nc_20151021_rel_032.html