For too many of our farmers in Eastern North Carolina, fall has changed from a time of optimism to one of loss. First, Tropical Storm Hermine brushed the northeastern corner of the state, causing significant flooding and problems for farmers. Then, remnants of Tropical Storm Julia blanketed much of Eastern North Carolina. The final, devastating insult came from Hurricane Matthew, with its uncertain path, but sweeping reach and catastrophic flooding.
Flood waters are still high in many areas, which has made assessing ag losses and crop conditions difficult.
In surveying some of the hardest-hit areas of southeastern North Carolina by air last week, I can only say I have never seen anything like this. Never. I have seen a lot of storm damage as Commissioner of Agriculture, but this is catastrophic. Houses and barns were underwater, many roads washed away, and fields and crops submerged.
The magnitude of the damage is mind boggling. Basically, it looked like a lake from Smithfield to the coast.
Lots of crops were still in the field when the heavy rains hit our state. Farmers had been working as hard they could to harvest as much as they could before the wet weather rolled in. But there is only so much that can be done in the days leading up to a storm of this severity and scope, especially since previous storms kept soil too wet to work in.
Peanuts, cotton, soybeans and sweet potatoes were among the crops still in the fields. We also are concerned about livestock and poultry in flooded areas. To date, we have confirmed the loss of 1.9 million chickens and turkeys. Flooded and damaged roads have created challenges in moving feed and water to livestock operations, moving animals to market and moving fuel for generators.
Most in farming know that just because a crop is harvested doesn’t mean it is out of trouble. We have received reports of tobacco farms that lost power to curing barns, putting their crop at risk.
Many people will remember Hurricane Floyd and the damage it caused in Eastern North Carolina. It was referred to as a 500-year flood, something many of us expected we would only see once in a lifetime. I am not sure how this hurricane will go down in history, but I expect the agriculture community will be talking about it for a long, long time.
As a farmer, I know it is difficult to work all season, get to harvest time just to see the fruits of your labor rotting in the field, blown away or lost to power outages. We all know it’s a part of the risk of farming, but it is still like a hard blow to the gut.
When we have challenges in our community, we typically see a lot of neighbors helping neighbors. From what I can see following Hurricane Matthew, there are a lot of neighbors in the same boat. We are going to need outside help. We are working closely with our federal partners on assistance for farmers.
Already, we have requested and received approval for $6 million from FEMA to purchase sawdust and other wood products to be used in composting poultry carcasses, which will mitigate the potential public health risk. Composting is the preferred method of disposal because it reduces leeching of farm waste, reduces pest and disease issues and prevents odor issues. With our coordination, deliveries of these wood products to farms has begun.
NCDA&CS employees have been working feverishly to help farmers and others affected by Matthew. Our activities have included airlifting supplies to farms that are cut off from roads; providing guidance and resources for the sheltering of pets at emergency shelters in several affected counties; delivering food to support emergency feeding operations; and assessing damages to farms. In addition, about 150 members of our N.C. Forest Service have been dispatched to clear roads with chain saws, assist with sandbag operations to reinforce dams, and help with various local emergency operations.
I want to encourage farmers needing assistance to call our toll-free Ag Emergency Hotline at 1-866-645-9403. We have gotten more than 250 calls in the days following Matthew. Information and resources also are available at our website, www.ncagr.gov/disaster/matthew.
We will be continuing to assess agricultural damage and assist farmers and agribusiness however we can. Please keep our farm community and Eastern North Carolina in your prayers.