Shock, Rescue, Recovery: North Carolina Farmers Deal With Storm Loss

A FEMA photo taken Oct. 14 showing flooded farmland in Kinston, North Carolina.

Photograph by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

The flood waters are subsiding along with the national news stories about the devastation wrought to North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, but for the farmers who have lost everything, the nightmare is far from over.  

“We’ve got some areas where whole counties were underwater because of riverine flooding and where farmers lost not just their crops, but their homes and their equipment,” Brian Long, the director of public affairs for the North Carolina Agricultural Department tells Modern Farmer in a phone interview.

The storm devastated parts of the Caribbean before it hit the U.S. and tore a path along the coast of North Carolina  two weeks ago causing massive flooding, killing 26 people and more than a million farm animals. The estimated price tag—an early tally— is about $1.5 billion in damages. The entire length of the eastern region of the state, from the north to south, was hit hardest, but the central portion of the state was also affected. Long says agriculture in nearly half of North Carolina’s counties, 48 of 100, was negatively impacted by the storm and subsequent flooding. 

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory told CNN that farming could be one of the hardest-hit sectors—affecting everything from peanuts and sweet potatoes to poultry and pigs—and could have “a major, devastating impact on our (agricultural) community.”

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The state is the number one producer in the country for broiler chickens and sweet potatoes, and the second largest for pork, according to Curtis Hayes, the public relations director for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, an organization that represents about 50,000 farms and nearly 90 percent of the state’s farmers. The Farm Bureau also has a crop insurance wing, and is anticipating around 20,000 insurance claims, he says.

Seventy percent of the state’s agricultural output was affected by floodwaters, including the top ten animal agriculture producing counties with poultry farmers suffering losses of around 1.9 million birds killed, mostly broiler chickens, but about 100,ooo turkeys also perished, Hayes tells Modern Farmer. About 3,300 hogs were killed. For crop farmers the estimates are still up in the air.

“There’s still a lot of peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans flooded out in the field,” says Hayes. “There’s three phases with these natural disasters: Shock, rescuing and stabilizing, and then recovery. Right now we’re still in the stabilization phase.”

In some counties,  flooded rivers are just now starting to recede allowing farmers to begin to get back into their fields to “get their eyes on just how bad it might be” says Long. “In some cases, it might not be as bad as they feared. In several of the counties that were affected, sweet potato growers are now able to resume harvesting and some of them are cautiously optimistic that their crop may have survived the wet conditions, but it’s still too soon to know what the true impact on quality it may have. It’s one of those things where time will tell you for sure,” he says.

The state’s Department of Agriculture spent most of last week providing feed and water for livestock stuck on farms surrounded by floodwaters and with limited access, says Long. Now, the focus is shifting to recovery mode. One of the big issues is disposing of the dead livestock, especially poultry. Long says his department is sourcing and delivering wood shavings that can be used for on-farm composting of the carcasses. The department is also still trying to determine the exact scope of the losses to the state’s agriculture sector.

For North Carolina farmers trying to wrap their heads around their new reality, the North Carolina State University Agricultural Extension set up the North Carolina Disaster Information Center, a website that provides a range of information, from how and where farmers can apply for aid, to practical advice, including videos, on how to move forward and salvage what crops they can.

Whether Hurricane Matthew will turn out to be as bad as 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, which caused $543 million in crop damage, $256 million in farm structure damage, and $13 million in livestock damage, is still an open question. Long says he obviously hopes it won’t be as bad, and believes that the livestock sector, specifically hog farmers who were better prepared this time around and were able to get their animals to safety, will probably fare better than the did back in 1999. But for crops farmers, “it’s still too soon to tell.”

For the folks who want to help farmers and other residents whose lives have been devastated by the storm, there are several disaster relief funds that have been set up, including the North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund for Hurricane Matthew and one by the North Carolina Community Foundation.

Hayes says when Louisiana was badly hit by flooding in August, various state farm bureaus, including the farm bureau in North Carolina, “came together and sent people, money, and donations” to help Louisiana farmers.

“We’re seeing the same kind of thing here in North Carolina—people from other states reaching out and farmers helping each other. I’m very proud to be associated with the farm bureau and to work with such good folks who always come around to help each other,” he says.


Shock, Rescue, Recovery: North Carolina Farmers Deal With Storm Loss