Florence hammers North Carolina agriculture and killing 3.4 million chickens, turkeys

Key Points
  • North Carolina's poultry sector suffered the loss of at least 3.4 million chickens and turkeys as a result of impacts from Hurricane Florence.
  • The Tar Heel state's swine losses are now estimated to be 5,500 hogs, according to industry estimates.
  • South Carolina also appears to have suffered damage to its cotton crop, the state's top agriculture official said.
Chicken farm buildings are inundated with floodwater from Hurricane Florence near Trenton, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018.
Steve Helber | AP

Florence, the storm that swept into the American Southeast as a hurricane last week, inundated wide swaths of the Carolinas, leaving more than 30 people dead.

The storm, which is now broken into remnants, moved out of the area, leaving behind massive destruction, including in the region's agricultural industry.

North Carolina's poultry sector suffered the loss of at least 3.4 million birds, including chickens and turkeys, as a result of Florence, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced late Tuesday. The swine industry losses are now estimated at about 5,500 hogs, the department added.

Previously, one of the state's major poultry producers had estimated the loss of about 1.7 million chickens.

At the same time, the state agency warned that the livestock losses "could change based on further recovery efforts."

There also have been widespread power failures and roads being damaged or flooded, which have made it difficult to get feed to livestock operations and to bring in fuel to run backup generators at poultry houses and tobacco curing barns.

The harvesting of sweet potatoes has been interrupted due to flooding, and there are fears the storm caused damage to the tobacco crop left in fields.

"The biggest crisis we've got is certainly flooding and water down east," said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. "Many of the creeks and rivers have not crested yet."

Tobacco, sweet potatoes

Wooten, a corn and tobacco grower, said the crop most affected by Florence's heavy rain and wind is tobacco that was left in the field. "Tobacco was only about 50 percent out of the field and so it was probably the most impacted of any of the crops we had out," he said.

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, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

North Carolina is the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the nation, and the crop was only about one-fourth harvested before Florence struck. Sweet potatoes generated nearly $350 million in crop value last year for the Tar Heel State.

Harvesting of sweet potatoes ceased in many areas of the state after the storm hit but could resume later this week when packing facilities reopen. That said, some fields remained flooded Tuesday, and there are concerns some of the crop may develop rot and result in millions of dollars in losses.

Pig-manure lagoon breach

The National Weather Service in Raleigh estimated early Tuesday that Florence had dumped about 8.04 trillion gallons of rain on North Carolina. Florence also caused at least 33 deaths, with 26 of those in North Carolina, according to The Associated Press.

The North Carolina Pork Council said late Monday it was aware of at least one breach of a pig-manure lagoon on a swine farm in Duplin County, located about 60 miles north of Wilmington. The trade group also said at least four lagoons were known to "have been inundated by flood waters" and another seven lagoons were at capacity after the storm "and appear to have overtopped."

About 9 million hogs are raised in North Carolina. The state ranks second in production, and the industry contributes approximately $2.9 billion annually to the local economy.

There have been concerns given the heavy rainfall from Florence that pig-manure lagoons and coal-ash ponds at power facilities could overflow and spread hazardous and toxic waste across nearby lands and into waterways.

"We do not believe, based on on-farm assessments to date and industrywide surveying, that there are widespread impacts to the more than 2,100 farms with more than 3,000 anaerobic treatment lagoons in the state," the state pork group said in a statement.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement Monday it has staff "monitoring hog lagoons in storm-impacted areas and is coordinating with North Carolina, as needed, to assess impacts to downstream drinking water intakes due to possible releases. EPA on-scene coordinators and equipment stand ready to deploy, if needed."

3.4 million birds lost

Flooding also affected poultry operations in North Carolina. The state is a major poultry producer and ranks second in total turkey production.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, North Carolina's ag agency said poultry losses as of Sept. 18 were estimated at 3.4 million birds. "This does exceed poultry losses in [2016's] Hurricane Matthew," it said.

Sanderson Farms, the nation's third-largest poultry producer, on Monday had estimated about 1.7 million broiler chickens at independent farms were destroyed as a result of the flooding and indicated there were areas still isolated by flood waters where there could be additional losses of live inventory.

"Out of 880 broiler houses in North Carolina, 60 have flooded," the company said Monday. "Another six houses experienced damage and will be unable to house broilers until repairs are made."

Sanderson also said there were four chicken breeder houses affected in North Carolina by the flooding, and 33 pullet houses with young hens were found to have "serious damage."

Still, Sanderson said it "does not believe the loss of housing capacity will affect its ongoing operations, as it can shorten layouts and take other temporary measures to compensate for these losses.

Elsewhere, Tyson Foods said Tuesday it had only "minimal impact" to its live poultry operations in North Carolina and Virginia from Florence.

"Two farms in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, area were affected and we're leveraging our regional supply chain to ensure there's no disruption to business," said company spokesman Worth Sparkman. "We're helping the affected farmers."

Butterball, based in Garner, North Carolina, and the country's largest producer of turkey products, said Tuesday it was "in the process of confirming the exact impact of this storm at the corporate, facility and farm level."

A company representative added, "While that review continues, our priority remains helping our partners and their families who have been directly impacted by this storm. Due in part to our preparations prior to the storm, none of our facilities sustained any major damage."

South Carolina impacts

Meantime, South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said Tuesday in an interview with the Southern Farm Network that cotton farmers in the state will suffer the most impact from the storm.

Weathers said the cotton crop's bolls opened before Florence hit, so sustained winds of between 30 and 50 mph plus moisture from the rains made the cotton heavy and produced a mess. "It literally knocked it out of the bolls onto the ground," he said.

"Some of our farmers had to plant late because of a cold wet spring, so that could be a blessing," Weathers said. "If it's later planted, its chances are better."

South Carolina's cotton crop is valued at more than $150 million annually and is usually harvested in late September.

Finally, the state official said the storm could also have an impact on peanuts. The hurricane halted most of the peanut harvesting, and Weathers said the quality of the crop could be harmed if peanuts are left in the ground too long.

-Updated with new animal livestock losses provided by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.