As I mentioned in my news round-up last week, Hurricane Florence has brought an estimated $40+ billion in damages to North Carolina. So far, I have written about the 60 percent drop in freight activity coming out of the state, as well as the closures and slow re-openings of both ports and I-95. Some truck routes in and out of the state are still unreliable. Most reports indicate it could still take several weeks for deliveries and freight traffic to return to normal levels.
On top of this, the flooding has caused scenes straight out of a science fiction movie, with giant swarms of large, aggressive mosquitoes. Often called gallinippers, these mosquitoes are three times the size of an average mosquito, or larger, and pack a much more painful bite. These swarms are multiplying fast with all the stagnant water. There has been a push to bring these pests under control, as North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper ordered $4 million in control efforts to help counties hit by Hurricane Florence.
One of the hardest hit sectors in North Carolina has been agriculture. Hog farming in North Carolina is a $2 billion industry. Hurricane Florence took direct aim at the state’s hog farming counties of Sampson and Duplin, leaving farmers scrambling to take action. First, the farmers had to evacuate their animals to higher ground to ensure they would survive the storm. But there was another major challenge ahead of farmers – waste lagoons. Waste lagoon is the pork-industry term for a large pit containing the liquid and solid waste from these animals when grown in a confined feeding operation for slaughter. These giant pits run the risk of overflowing with heavy rain and floodwaters, which will contaminate surrounding waterways.
According to North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, as of last week, more than 130 of the state’s 4,000 hog waste lagoons had been compromised. That number has recently been reduced to 85. However, this is not the first time the state has dealt with this issue. In 1999, flooding from Hurricane Floyd caused waste lagoons to pollute rivers and groundwater, which many people rely on for wells. Then governor Jim Hunt called for elimination of waste lagoons over the coming decade; that clearly has not happened. This puts an added burden on farmers to bear the cost of cleanup, which could take months.
On top of these costs, and the environmental impact, is the hit on the hog supply. Most farmers were able to successfully move their animals to higher ground, under the assumption that the floodwaters could not reach them. However, the flood waters rose to levels never before seen, and at least 5,500 hogs have perished in the storm. This came from a combination of drowning and wind damage to barns. The hog and poultry industries alone have seen about $4 million in lost animals from Florence.
Other areas of agriculture have been hit even harder. Soybeans and corn crops in North Carolina have lost an estimated $1.1 billion. For these farmers, they had to decide whether to harvest early or hope the crops could weather the storm. For most farms, the crops were so heavily damaged that they could not be salvaged. The same is true of the peanut crop. While some crops turned out alright, many suffered severe water damage and began to sprout. Farmers have indicated that this will severely impact the quality of their goods.
Tobacco plants are another area of major losses. In total, the state has lost roughly $980 million in tobacco crops. From reports I have seen, many farms were able to partially clear their fields before the storm came. However, those plants that were not harvested are destroyed. The same is true with the cotton industry, as cotton fields are left with cotton basically melting off the plants onto the ground.
Farm labor is the other major industry that has been affected by Hurricane Florence. In a recent report I heard on NPR, many migrant workers from Mexico make the rounds through different states to pick crops – Michigan for blueberries, Florida for tomatoes, and North Carolina for tobacco and sweet potatoes. In a normal year, at harvest time, a crew boss will bring in anywhere from 40 to 60 workers per day to pick the sweet potatoes. Workers will generally receive an hourly wage plus a small bonus for every basket they fill. This year, the problem is two-fold. First, like other crops, the decision had to be made whether to harvest early or ride out the storm. For those that rode out the storm, the result is sweet potatoes that are rotten and cannot be salvaged. Some farmers have indicated declines in their crops of at 20 percent this year due to the storm.
The second problem is a labor shortage. When Hurricane Florence swept in to North Carolina, it destroyed houses that the migrant workers had rented. These workers lost their possessions and ability to work. With the flood waters, there was simply no work to be done. This equates to no paychecks. The end result was that many workers moved on to Florida to get ready for the tomato harvest. Crew leaders are lucky to get 10 to 20 workers in the field on any given day. This slows down the harvest but also leads to more spoilage and less product available for the market.
In the end, Hurricane Florence has caused $40+ billion in damages. The agricultural sector has been hit hard, and the losses will only continue to pile up. For many farmers, crop insurance will cover nearly 75 percent of their profit losses. However, the insurance does not cover labor, or the cost of materials and machinery used to plant in the first place. It also does not aid in the clean-up and overall destruction of fields. For family owned farms, this is an especially difficult time, as they have poured everything they have into farming. It could be a long road to recovery for the agriculture supply chain in North Carolina.