Heavy rain and flooding in the Carolinas and other parts of the Southeast are expected to result in significant losses to peanut, soybean and cotton crops — and the damage could extend to the region's tobacco and poultry operations, according to officials.
"We anticipate huge losses in peanuts and cotton, probably a lot of losses also going to be in soybeans," said Harry Ott, state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's South Carolina Farm Service Agency. "We have sweet potatoes under water that need to be harvested right now (and) we are going to experience losses in them."
South Carolina has seen dam breaches due to the historic rains and flooding caused by Hurricane Joaquin, and at least 14 people have been reported killed in that state alone. Authorities are still assessing the damage, a difficult process because many roads are washed out.
Flooding has resulted in cotton futures moving higher this week. On the ICE Futures Exchange on Thursday, cotton for December delivery is up about 2.7 percent since Monday.
South Carolina produces about 5 percent of the nation's cotton crop acreage, and parts of the state received more than 25 inches of rainfall.
There also were reports of livestock operations, such as chicken houses, that are on the verge of running out of feed. South Carolina's poultry sector represents about 40 percent of all agriculture in the state and contributes $1.5 billion to the economy, according to the South Carolina Poultry Federation.
"Roads are washed out getting to the houses, and trucks can't deliver feed," said Ott. "So depending on how quickly we can get some roads repaired, it could get worse."
The governors of South Carolina and North Carolina signed waivers to federal trucking rules that could speed up the delivery of feed for livestock and poultry producers.
It also has been tough for peanut farmers in the Southeast, particularly in the Carolinas, where producers were in the early stages of harvest when the heavy rains started. As of Oct. 4, just 15 percent of the South Carolina peanut crop was harvested and 8 percent of the North Carolina crop, according to the USDA's weekly Crop Progress report. Those harvest figures were well below the 2010-14 average for this time of year.
"It's a little early to tell, but there's reason to be concerned about a lot of the area," said Bob Parker, president and CEO of the National Peanut Board, a farmer-funded research and promotion trade group. "We had been warned we would be moving into an El Niño pattern, which is a wetter-than-normal fall, and we could have problems with the harvest in the Southeast. And that didn't even include a hurricane."
According to Parker, the rains also fell on peanut crops in Virginia, Georgia, and portions of Florida and Alabama. Georgia is the nation's leading peanut-producing state, and as of Oct. 4 an estimated 15 percent of its peanut crop was harvested.
Prior to the recent floods, the USDA estimated that domestic peanut production could come in at the second-largest harvest ever. The government is scheduled to report updated harvest figures early next week.
"Floods came at the absolute worst possible time for peanuts and cotton," said Ott. "I grow peanuts myself, and generally if peanuts get wet for an extended period of time, they have rot and mold that sets in, and it makes them unusable for consumption. So it could very well be a complete loss on some of the peanuts."
On Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory went to see the damage firsthand, and one of the stops he made was a peanut farm run by farmer Dan Ward, who estimated he could lose 75 percent of his crop.
"We are going to have a lot of farmers in trouble if they don't get some help," said Bob Etheridge, state executive director of the USDA's North Carolina Farm Service Agency. He said the full effect of the rains and flooding probably won't be known for another week.
According to Etheridge, North Carolina's soybean crop could see "as much as a 30 percent drop-off," and sweet potato production in the state is at risk of seeing similar declines. In eastern North Carolina, the official said the tobacco crop is threatened.
"We still have some tobacco in the field — and that may not be popular everywhere, but for these folks it pays their bills," said Etheridge. "And in some cases they may have lost that with too much water.