Irene costs tobacco farmers $114 million

As their crops come in and they count their gains and losses, Eastern North Carolina farmers are finding that much of their profit this year was dried up by drought or blown away by Hurricane Irene.

Even before the storm left North Carolina, growers and agricultural extension agents knew that Irene would hurt tobacco and cotton the worst, but they couldn't quantify the damage until the harvest.

With the tobacco harvest finished, state officials say the value of the crop this year was worth at least $114 million less than last year, though the number of acres planted was up slightly. Average yield per acre was 1,700 pounds of tobacco on this year's crop, compared to 2,100 acres last year and an average of 2,204 pounds per acre over the past decade.

The crop was worth about $589 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Farming is difficult. You depend on so many things you can't control, and that's certainly the case this year," said Loren Fisher, associate professor of crop science and an extension tobacco specialist for N.C. State University. "It was a particularly bad year for tobacco."

Agriculture and related businesses are the state's leading industry, generating $74 billion in economic activity and accounting for nearly 700,000 jobs, according to the Department of Agriculture. More than most businesses, though, its fortunes depend upon the weather - drought some years, hurricanes in others. This year it was both.

The tobacco crop was especially vulnerable to the sustained winds and rain of Hurricane Irene when the storm pounded the coast at the end of August because so much of the harvest was still in the fields. The plants were two to three weeks behind their normal growth because of the dry, hot weather of early summer. Worse, the leaves that remained when the hurricane arrived were the most valuable ones on the plant.

The rain and wind tore the leaves, making them less valuable at harvest, and in some cases, wet weather following the hurricane drowned the plants.

In many fields, the plants were blown over. Sometimes, Fisher said, those can be stood back up, but they have to be harvested by hand instead of by mechanical harvesters that farms now use.

"Most farmers don't have the labor to pick by hand anymore," Fisher said.

There are about 1,500 tobacco operations in the state, Fisher said, with about 2,000 to 2,500 growers relying on them for income.

Help breaking even

Walter Stalls figures Hurricane Irene cost him about $400,000 in ruined tobacco, and an additional $200,000 on the cotton he grows near Robersonville in Martin County.

"We did get some insurance money," Stalls said, referring to federal crop insurance most farmers purchase to help cover losses. "All that does is help you break even."

Stalls had high hopes for his cotton crop this year. Prices have been good, hovering around $1 a pound, and a farmer who harvests 750 pounds of cotton per acre will make a profit on the crop.

"I was sitting on some 1,000-pound (to the acre) cotton before that storm," said Stalls, who has farmed for 38 of his 57 years. "But the wind scrambled it."

The storm knocked down the plants, Stalls said. Like tobacco plants, they can sometimes be stood back up, but at harvest time, the shaking from the mechanical picker causes the cotton to fall on the ground.

'Hard lock'

Cotton is also subject to a condition called "hard lock," in which the lint stiffens up permanently. It never fluffs out and can't be harvested by a mechanical picker. In some places affected by Irene, wet weather that continued after the storm kept the cotton from drying out, making it vulnerable to mold.

Al Cochran, cooperative extension agent for Martin County, one of the state's top cotton-producing counties, said yields there are down about 40 percent overall, mostly as a result of the storm.

Across the state, cotton was worth about $329 million last year.

Stalls' fields stretch from one end of the county to the other, he said, and just as some fields had more beneficial rainfall in the months before the hurricane, some sustained more damage from the storm. At the low end, he said, he'll get 350 pounds per acre. At the high end, he'll get 600.

The November crop report released Wednesday by the USDA said that statewide, the cotton yield is down 21 percent from last year. On average, farmers will bring in 660 pounds per acre, down from 838 pounds in 2010.

Peanuts and soybeans

Meanwhile, the report said, peanuts and soybeans in the state are thriving. Peanut plants were healthy enough before the storm that they weren't damaged by the wind, and both peanuts and soybeans appear to have benefitted from the rain that came with Irene and in weeks that followed.

The rain came at an especially good time for soybeans that are planted later in the year, said Craig Ellison, extension agent for Northampton County.

Soybean yields are expected to be up by 5 bushels per acre over last year, to 31 bushels. Peanuts are expected to produce an average of 3,500 pounds per acre this year, compared to 2,700 pounds in 2010.

Farmers say they have seen better years. They've also seen worse.

"I've been in it long enough now that I'm discouraged, but I don't give up," Stalls said. "I'm the type that hangs in there and keeps going, and hopes it gets better next year."