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From pork to tobacco, farms are in the 'bull's-eye' of Hurricane Florence

Key Points
  • Livestock and crop producers in the Carolinas are bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence, which could pound the region starting Thursday.
  • Officials say the storm could cause dangerous flooding and damaging winds in particular to North Carolina, known for its extensive pork and poultry production.
  • Ahead of the storm, farmers in the Carolinas were also rushing to harvest various crops, including tobacco, corn and sweet potatoes.
A file photo of tobacco leaves harvested in Kernersville, North Carolina.
Davis Turner | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Livestock and crop producers in the Carolinas are bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence, which could pound the region with destructive rain, flooding and wind and cause losses in the millions.

Growers of corn and tobacco in North Carolina and South Carolina were rushing to harvest the crops ahead of the menacing storm, which is expected to worsen Thursday and into Friday.

Poultry houses were preparing for the hurricane by stocking up on gas to run generators as well as bringing in extra feed to ride out the storm.

Nearly 10 million hogs are raised in North Carolina, and the state ranks second in production. Producers were taking steps to prepare for the storm, given that flooding could cause the overflow of hog manure lagoons.

"If it does the damage that it could do, talking from 20 to 30 inches of rain, and if the storm hovers ... you could see the loss of livestock and poultry in the millions," said Dan Kowalski, vice president of the Knowledge Exchange division at Denver-based CoBank, a major lender to agribusiness. "You have a lot of high-dollar crops that are still out there."

As of 5 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Florence is about 385 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, with winds estimated at 120 mph, making it a Category 3 hurricane, according to the National Weather Service.

"Although slow weakening is expected to begin by late Thursday, Florence is forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it nears the U.S. coast late Thursday and Friday," NWS said. It warned of "life-threatening storm surge" and dangerous flooding and said "damaging hurricane force winds are likely," particularly along the coast as well as locations further inland.

North Carolina officials said tens of thousands of structures could be flooded, based on modeling from the storm. There also were preparations in South Carolina underway given the risk of widespread flooding and tropical storm force winds of up to 73 miles per hour in parts of the Midlands region of the state.

Rush to harvest crops

"Right now we have a lot of things that are vulnerable," Harry Ott, president of the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I'm actually riding a combine right now trying to get the last of my corn crop out of the field. And we've got corn exposed and cotton that's beginning to open that's a major crop of ours. So we're subject to some substantial losses."

Farmers in the Carolinas also just began harvesting peanuts. The crop is vulnerable to rot and mold when peanuts get wet for an extended period of time, which is what happened two years ago.

Hurricane Matthew caused widespread damage and destruction to the Carolinas after making landfall in South Carolina back in 2016, devastating South Carolina's peanut crop as well as its cotton and soybeans. The 2016 storm also was blamed for killing more than 200,000 chickens.

"Matthew was the worst thing I ever lived through as far as natural disasters," said Ott. "We called it a '1,000-year flood' during Matthew, so I hope we don't get another one of those."

Reminder of past disasters

Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 dumped as much as 24 inches of rain in North Carolina and caused massive flooding. It did more than $800 million in damage to the state's agriculture sector, including the loss of millions of farm animals. Hurricane Fran in September 1996 made landfall in North Carolina, resulting in heavy damage to the state's tobacco, corn and cotton crops and the loss of about 300,000 chickens and turkeys.

Even before the arrival of Hurricane Florence, North Carolina has experienced its fourth wettest year to date in nearly 30 years, according to Bill Kirk, CEO and co-founder of Weather Trends International.

"The concern is you've already had too much water this year and now you're going to put 15 to 20 inches on top of that," Kirk said.

On Tuesday, the NWS forecast office in Wilmington, North Carolina, warned that "this will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast, and that's saying a lot given the impacts we've seen from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, and Matthew."

It added that forecasters "can't emphasize enough the potential for unbelievable damage from wind, storm surge and inland flooding with this storm."

Tobacco crop at risk

"Hurricane Florence is a very severe weather event for us," said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. "The governor said, and it certainly still looks like, North Carolina is in the bull's-eye — and agriculture is in the very heart of that bull's-eye."

Wooten, a corn and tobacco grower, said the North Carolina agriculture industry was in the middle of harvesting some crops, so there could be impacts from the storm, depending on how much water falls and how much wind strikes.

About 50 percent of the tobacco produced in the U.S. comes from North Carolina. The tobacco production alone represented about $724 million to the state's economy last year.

"We probably still have 50 percent of our tobacco in the field," said Wooten. "When you get 40, 50 and 60 mph winds, that tobacco will basically be done. What's not blown off will be rendered useless."

Wooten said farmers are "feverishly trying to get tobacco into barns. But when they get it into barns, they are still not through, because it's important that you have air to dry that tobacco."

Virginia also has tobacco still being harvested and could get heavy rainfall from Hurricane Florence. As of last week, only 65 percent of the flue-cured tobacco was harvested in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tobacco in bulk-curing barns requires a constant supply of electrical power, so Wooten said farmers are getting back-up generators ready since there's a good chance power could go down due to the storm.

Soybeans, sweet potatoes

Soybeans also are at risk from Hurricane Florence. The Carolinas grow more than 75 million bushels of soybeans, while Virginia has another 26 million bushels. North Carolina's soybean production last year was valued at nearly $640 million, according to the USDA.

North Carolina is the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the nation and the crop is only about one-fourth harvested, according to Wooten. He said farmers are rushing to dig up the potatoes and get them into facilities so they can be saved.

"If they get 10, 12, or 20 inches of water on the ground and it stays saturated, those potatoes begin to sour or rot," he said.

Sweet potatoes represented nearly $350 million in production value in 2017 to North Carolina, while corn is nearly $500 million in value. As of last week, only 43 percent of the state's corn crop was harvested, according to the USDA.

Hog manure lagoons

North Carolina also is a major hog producer. Flooding from the storm could cause toxic debris from hog waste storage ponds to contaminate rivers and become a public health emergency.

Scott Morgan | Reuters

"Farmers across the major production areas of North Carolina are reporting current lagoon storage levels that can accommodate more than 25 inches of rain, with many reporting capacity volumes far beyond that," the North Carolina Pork Council said in a statement Monday. The council also said producers are "shifting animals to higher ground."

Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest pork producer, has more than 14,000 employees in Virginia and North Carolina.

On Tuesday, Smithfield said employees in the company's North Carolina and eastern Virginia plants as well as some 250 company-owned farms and about 1,500 contract farms were "taking steps to protect people, animals and buildings against wind and rain damage." The company added that its farms were "closely monitoring and, as necessary, lowering lagoon levels in accordance with state regulations."

Poultry farms in path

North Carolina also is a major producer of broiler chickens and turkey products. Poultry is the top agricultural industry in North Carolina, and the state ranks second in total turkey production.

Butterball, the country's largest producer of turkey products, is based in Garner, North Carolina, and said in a statement it began making preparations for the storm last week.

"While we also have operations located throughout the Midwest, many of our North Carolina-based processing plants, hatcheries and feed mills are within the current projected path of the storm," Butterball said in a statement. "We are also working to ensure the safety of turkeys, and our feed mills have been running over the weekend to ensure there is sufficient feed in storage."

Butterball's North Carolina plants produce everything from turkey breast and ground turkey to turkey bacon. The company's Midwest plants raise, produce and store its whole birds.

Perdue Farms, a major organic poultry producer, said Wednesday it was currently in the process of closing three of its Carolina operations ahead of the storm, thereby allowing employees time to safely take care of themselves and their families. The company has about 21,000 employees companywide and several thousand workers that it says may be affected by the hurricane.

Also, Perdue said it purchased generators for employees who may be in need if they lose power as well as arranged bottled water at locations that may be affected. The company also said it's assisting its farmers in the path of the storm by "helping them to move birds to a safer location and away from areas that historically flood."