NC Ag officials: Irene's damage 'severe'

The State Board of Agriculture and Commissioner Steve Troxler met in Raleigh today to talk about how to best help NC farmers devastated by Hurricane Irene.

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Laura Leslie

The State Board of Agriculture held an emergency meeting in Raleigh today to get an update on damage caused by Hurricane Irene, and to figure out how to best help North Carolina farmers recover from it.

“Agriculture production in North Carolina took it right straight on the chin,” said Ag Commissioner Steve Troxler. He called Irene’s damage “heartwrenching” – “as severe or more severe than Floyd in places.”

Troxler opened the meeting with a slideshow of photos of damaged buildings and flooded fields, taken during a tour last week with US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano and state legislative leaders. Driving down a back road in Beaufort County, he said, “looked like we were on a bridge over the sound.”

Crop losses accounted for $320 million of the $400 million in estimated damages caused by the storm. About three-quarters of the state’s tobacco, corn, and soybeans, and more than 90% of its cotton are grown east of I-95 – the area where Irene flooded fields and flattened crops.

“When you look at the map and you see the high percentages of the crops that we grow – the major crops that we grow - in this area, you know that made it all the more damaging,” Troxler said. 

“But then beyond that, it was late crops, because of the drought and the heat that we’ve suffered this summer. You know, we had gotten to the point where the crops were beginning to look pretty good, and then of course this happens. So a lot of farmers almost feel like they got robbed on the way to the bank.” 

Troxler says tobacco appears to have been hit hardest, both in the fields and in barns. Early federal estimates put the state’s tobacco losses at $190 million. He said the leaves have been shredded by wind or blown over into floodwaters that are melting them away. “In some cases, the farmers the next day spent a lot of money going out to stand these stalks of tobacco back up, and that night another storm came through and put ‘em back on the ground again.”

Wilson farmer Pender Sharpe is state chairman for the federal Farm Services Agency. His family farm alone lost 300 barns of tobacco. But he says farmers are only a small portion of the people affected. “It’s not just farmers, but where they spend their money,” he told the Board of Agriculture, warning that Irene’s damage would take “billions and billions out of the economy of Eastern NC.”  

Sharpe says federal crop insurance will help, but even its most expensive policies only cover 80% of the value of a given farm’s 10-year average yield. And other federal assistance can take more than a year to arrive if it ever does. He asked Troxler to use his political influence to push Congress to pass a farm aid bill in response to Irene. His interview is at right. 

Troxler is hoping for help from the state, too. His office unveiled a list of six proposals today, including asking state lawmakers to consider putting up a pool of $20 million to guarantee private loans that could help farmers bridge the gap between needs now and relief later.
“We’re hopeful that a 20 percent guarantee would help that private institution make that loan that will get this farmer from point A to point B,” Troxler said. “And that’s really what we’re trying to do. Farmers are not asking for handouts; they’re asking for help.”

Several legislators attended today’s meeting, along with staffers for Reps. Butterfield and Ellmers and Senator Richard Burr.

State Senate Ag/Environment chair David Rouzer, R-Johnston, told the board, “We stand ready to do whatever we need to do to be helpful.”

House Ag co-chairs James Langdon (R-Johnston) and Efton Sager (R-Wayne) echoed Rouzer. “This is a huge blow,” Sager said.


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