Gulf Coast agriculture braces for approaching Harvey, with Texas cotton, rice at risk

Key Points
  • Agriculture is a major part of the western Gulf Coast economy, and cotton and rice producers have been rushing to harvest their crops ahead of Harvey.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday that harvest activity has now been suspended due to the approaching storm.
  • Ag shipments have been interrupted along the Texas coast, which represents almost one-quarter of the nation's wheat exports.
A tractor carries a cotton module ready for transport to the gin at a farm in Texas.
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The path of the Hurricane Harvey is putting Texas agriculture at risk.

The Lone Star State leads the nation in cattle and cotton production, and rice also is a major ag crop. All are vulnerable with the approaching storm.

At the same time, Harvey is expected to delay agricultural export activity as it will interrupt ocean vessels and barge traffic along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Most farmers in the western Gulf Coast region were working hard this week to prepare for the storm and harvesting as much cotton and rice as they could.

A majority of the rice is already harvested but Harvey could be potentially devastating to those farmers with crops still in the fields. Activity has now been suspended due to the approaching storm, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Hopefully producers have been able to get most of the remaining rice acreage out of harm's way in advance of the storm," said USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey.

The Texas rice harvest was about 70 percent complete through Aug. 20, according to the last USDA estimate.

Michael Klein, a spokesman for the USA Rice Federation, told CNBC that rice producers have "actually have been pretty lucky because they got in a little early" to harvest the crop and he estimates as much as 85 percent of the acreage in the state is now harvested. He said what's mostly in the field now is organic rice, which tends to grow slower.

That said, Klein indicated that there's a risk heavy winds from the storm could cause damage to some of the harvested rice now in bins. Also, he said levees could break and cause additional problems.

"With most of the crop harvested, what the rice guys are primarily concerned with at this point is personal safety, houses, stuff like that — and flooding," he said.

Still, Klein said rice is in better shape going into the storm versus cotton.

"The cotton crop in this area of Texas is the biggest and most beautiful that anyone can remember in years, and probably two-thirds of it is still in the fields. It's going to be disastrous for them."

Also, Klein said he spoke to several farmers in the storm path and heard stories about rice and cotton producers helping each other out in recent days trying to get crops harvested.

As for cotton, Rippey said the USDA estimates only 9 percent of the Texas cotton crop is harvested.

"Most of the harvested acreage is what would be in the path of the storm," Rippey told CNBC. "The fact that they've hit 9 percent is favorable because they've gotten that cotton out of the field in advance of the hurricane."

Another big concern from an agricultural standpoint is the potential impact to livestock.

Meanwhile, agricultural shipments have been interrupted along the Texas coast, which represents almost one-quarter of the nation's wheat exports and a sizable portion of corn and soybean exports.

The Port of Corpus Christi closed as it prepared for the approaching hurricane. In addition to ag exports, the port is a major exporter of U.S. oil.

Also, the Port of Houston tweeted that its general cargo facilities would close at noon Friday. The port said it plans to "monitor conditions for Monday through the weekend."

The last big hurricane to hit Texas was Ike in September 2008. It was a Category 2 storm that struck Galveston Island, so it was a little bit further up the coast than Harvey.

"Ike was a huge sprawling hurricane," said Rippey. "It did have widespread impacts."

Ike was the costliest hurricane ever to hit Texas, causing $34.8 billion in damage and ranking No. 6 nationally in weather and climate disasters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ike also was blamed for 112 deaths.

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