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Carolinas farms could take billions in losses from Florence

GARY D. ROBERTSON and EMERY P. DALESIO

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Hurricane Florence is testing the resolve of farmers in the Carolinas, who could face billions of dollars in agricultural damage while still feeling the sting from Hurricane Matthew almost two years ago.

After last weekend's high winds and rain that was measured in feet, followed by this week's rising rivers and standing water in fields, early farm reports are confirming pre-storm worries about losses to tobacco, cotton and corn crops. North Carolina industry leaders remain anxious about whether sweet potatoes and peanuts — grown beneath the soil and susceptible to flooding — will suffer greatly as well.

Matthew hurt eastern North Carolina farmers in 2016, but that storm arrived in October, after most of field crops had been brought in. With Florence, most major crop harvests were still underway or just getting started.

"This hurricane couldn't have come at a worse time," North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten said,

North Carolina likely won't have preliminary crop damage estimates until the end of the next week, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said. Floodwaters and blocked country roads still were making it difficult for agency agronomists to check out farms. Five of North Carolina's top six farming counties are within the hardest-hit areas in the eastern part of the state.

"I think it's easily going to be in the billions of dollars," Troxler said in an interview Thursday, calling the damage "catastrophic" and "unbelievable."

In South Carolina, meanwhile, crop damage was estimated at $125 million so far, Gov. Henry McMaster wrote Thursday to the state's congressional delegation. This week, state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers visited farmers in damaged areas previously hurt by Matthew and by record flooding in 2015. Weathers said farmers told him that while this year's cotton crops had been damaged by high winds and peanuts were rotting in soaking soil, no crop was a total loss.

North Carolina farmers had several days' notice of Florence to harvest what they could and move livestock to higher ground or to market, but there was only so much they could do to prepare.

"Farmers have just faced several years of (low) commodity prices. Matthew came through ... and now we're faced with Florence," said Jason Jones, a fifth-generation farmer in Craven County. He said the un-harvested corn on his 1,800-acre (728-hectare) farm is "just about completely flat" and neighboring farms lost all of their tobacco in the fields. Jones said farmers have crop insurance, but it doesn't cover the total loss.

"For eastern North Carolina farmers, we're hanging by a thread," Jones said.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he told President Donald Trump during his visit to the state Wednesday that making farmers whole will take more than just a "farm bill."

"We're going to have to take a special approach to our farm communities, because they have taken a gut punch," said Cooper, who planned to view agricultural damage Friday.

North Carolina remains the nation's largest tobacco producer, with more than 330 million pounds (150 million kilograms) in 2016. Graham Boyd, chief executive of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, estimates losses could total as much as 125 million pounds (57 million kilograms) valued at $250 million to $350 million.

About 40 percent of the tobacco crop remained in the field when Florence arrived, Boyd said, with the highest-quality leaves yet to be harvested. Leaves began "melting on the stalk" — disintegrating when sunny skies followed heavy rains and standing water.

On the 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) that Craig West's family farms on near Fremont — about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Raleigh — the biggest moneymaker is the 500 acres (202 hectares) of tobacco. Sixteen inches (41 centimeters) of rain there made it impossible to harvest the leaves still in the fields in time, even if the winds hadn't battered them so that they were about as appealing and saleable as a bunch of bruised bananas, West said.

"We haven't had a good growing season anyway. We had a pretty severe drought early on and then it started raining. We had too much rain even before the storm," West said Thursday. "So we had some disease issues already. It's magnified since the storm."

West's tobacco loss means the farm's nearly $6 million in gross revenues will be diminished by about 30 percent, he said as workers loaded a machine that sorted tobacco picked weeks ago and then packaged the cured leaves into bundles for shipping.

Livestock losses in North Carolina are estimated at 3.4 million poultry and 5,500 hogs so far, the state Agriculture Department said. Both represent small percentages of the 800 million broilers — chickens raised for meat production — and 9 million hogs raised annually. Troxler said chicken and hog house damage would be significant.

Kim Kornegay's family farm in Johnston County could lose 40 percent of its cotton crop, farm manager T.J. Sasser said Thursday. Workers there prepared to slog through the mud Friday to try to see what sweet potatoes could be salvaged.

"We're optimistic, but we're also realistic," Kornegay said.

___

Dalesio reported from Fremont, North Carolina. Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

___

For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes .

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