Flooded farm fields lead to harvest of sorrow

Posted October 13, 2016 6:51 p.m. EDT
Updated October 14, 2016 10:59 a.m. EDT

— Nicholas Dupree didn't want to see what he saw Thursday at his family farm in Angier – rot setting in on a 20–acre lot of sweet potatoes.

Dupree is in a race against time to save his crop of sweet potatoes. If they sit in the water left behind by Hurricane Matthew's rains, they rot.

His fields were still so muddy Thursday morning that he needed a tractor to pull trucks through them. Some areas, he said, he won't even bother to harvest.

"The water runs to the bags in the field – the low spots – which we're going to lose more in those areas than we do on top of the ridge," he said. "Now, the thing is just to get them out as quick as we can."

The rain makes harvesting a muddy job. It makes storing the crop harder, too. The sweet potatoes have to be checked for signs of rot because one rotten one can spoil good ones around it.

"You have a chance of rot getting in the bins. When (crews are) picking them up, they do their best to sort them out, but not always," Dupree said. "You will have some (rotten ones)."

Brian Parrish, an agricultural agent with Harnett County, said the sandy soils in the county usually dry out pretty quickly, but not this time.

"Some of the areas in the county, in the southern parts of the county near Cumberland (County), they got 10 inches the week before the storm and then another 10 to 15 inches (from the hurricane)," Parrish said. "In some of those areas, it just is impossible for the soil to dry out."

Crop losses will have a tremendous economic impact on Harnett County, he said.

"It's going to be interesting to see how that does affect the sweet potatoes that are available because North Carolina is the No. 1 sweet potato producer in the United States, and then these sweet potatoes feed people not only in the United States but around the world," he said.

It may take weeks to assess how extensive the losses are, Parrish said.

"We've got farmers that have peanuts here in the county that haven't even turned those peanuts up," he said. "So, it's a wait-and-see game with a lot of the crops we have out there right now just to see how bad the damage is."

In addition to sweet potato and peanut crops, Matthew also caused problems for tobacco farmers, Parrish said. They had brought in their crops, but storm-related power outages meant some couldn't get them cured before they spoiled.

The state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services says every farm from Greensboro east suffered some sort of damage from the hurricane.

"The eastern counties represent 71 percent of the state’s total farm cash receipts," Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a statement. "While lots of crops were harvested before the storm, many crops, such as soybeans, sweet potatoes, peanuts and cotton, were just in the early stages of harvest."

Officials said initial reports also show that 1.9 million birds, mostly broiler chickens, died as a result of the storm, but they expect that figure to rise as floodwaters recede. The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the state a $6 million grant to help compost the carcasses to limit contamination issues.

Hog producers were able to limit the damage by moving their animals to higher ground before the storm, officials said. No hog waste lagoon breaches have been reported.