Incredible spate of disasters place U.S. farmers under daunting recoveries
Three hurricanes and a rash of wildfires this fall have left U.S. farmers and ranchers assessing damages and figuring out how to resume business operations. As with other industries, the recovery might take a while.
Hector Cordero, president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau, told the American Farm Bureau Federationearlier this month that crops throughout the island are a complete loss after damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Dairy represents Puerto Rico’s largest agriculture sector. Cordero, a dairy farmer himself, said the industry was operating at a production level of about 50 percent.
“The biggest problem our dairy farmers have is the access to the farm, and it’s impossible for the trucks from the dairy processors to get to the farmers,” he explained. “The other problem we have is we need access for the feed. We have three feed mills. They have the grain inventory, but they don’t have the access to energy” for processing feed.
In late September farmers and ranchers in Florida were assessing damages from Hurricane Irma. G.B. Crawford, director of public relations for the Florida Farm Bureau, said damages were extensive to all sectors of agriculture.
“Citrus growers tell us that 60 to 70 percent of the fruit was blown off the trees. Only 10 percent of Florida’s fall vegetable crop was in the ground, but those plants that were in production, including tomatoes, were a total loss. Many cattle ranchers tell us that they cannot gather and care for their animals because flooding has simply isolated portions of their properties.”
As groups like the Texas Farm Bureau began coordinating relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey in late August, farmers and ranchers there still faced prolonged rainfall and flooding. Gene Hall, Texas Farm Bureau director of communications, noted that the storm came on the heels of wildfire damage in Texas and other states this past spring.
“This is going to dwarf that in every respect, and it’s going to be a long time before we really realize the scope of it,” Hall said. “We know that a lot of farmers were counting on this cotton crop to be the one that keeps them in business. We don’t know if every farmer can survive this.”
Hall said most of the cotton—forecast as a bumper crop—was harvested in the path of the hurricane but was still being stored in fields when the storm hit. Harvested cotton is stored in 20,000-pound “blocks” called modules, under tarps.
“We know that tarps have been blown away, the modules have been torn apart by wind and damaged by rain, so that’s going to impact the overall loss in cotton,” Hall said.
He noted that ranchers in the path of the storm had a few days to prepare and move cattle before landfall, but some were likely caught by surprise.
Wildfires and drought proved equally devastating to Montana producers in early September and to those in California in late October. Montana Farm Bureau President Hans McPherson said all of that state’s farms and ranches felt some impact.
“If you’re in a part of the state where you have irrigation and you’re growing crops, nothing is really growing because you’re under a thick cloud cover of smoke and the sun won’t come through,” McPherson explained. In the case of livestock operations, “the animals are breathing the smoke, people are seeing their cattle not eat, they’re seeing them not gain weight, they’re seeing their grass and ranges burned up and no place to put their cattle.”
Wildfires in California this month are expected to affect wine production. Sonoma County agricultural products were valued at nearly $900 million last year, with wine grapes accounting for more than half of that total.