Farms in Northeast Louisiana Looking at Disaster

September 8, 2008

Farmers in northeastern Louisiana planting six of the state’s standard-bearing crops are looking at flooded fields and facing disaster following an unexpected trip through the region by the remnants of Hurricane Gustav.

Portions of Tensas and Franklin parishes, one of the centers of Louisiana agriculture, were drenched by up to 17 inches of rain earlier this week, said Bob Hutchinson, regional director of the LSU AgCenter.

Hundreds of farm houses were flooded during what Hutchinson called the worst scene he’d seen in his 29 years in northeastern Louisiana with the agricultural center.

“Normally, when you build your house, you put it on the highest ground,” Hutchinson said Thursday. “If their houses are flooded, you can imagine what happened to the crop lands.”

Thousands of acres of corn, cotton, soybeans, grain sorghum, rice and sweet potatoes are at risk, Hutchinson said.

According to the AgCenter, those crops combined had a statewide value of $1.6 billion in 2007, a large portion of the $5.7 billion generated by all forms of Louisiana agriculture.

Darrell Vandeven, who farms 6,500 acres of cotton, corn and soybeans at St. Joseph, La., said about 90 percent of the cotton and 60 percent of the soybeans in Tensas Parish had been harvested before the storm hit. The remaining crops likely are lost, he said.

But the entire cotton crop was still in the field.

“We had been looking at a mediocre cotton crop,” Vandeven said. “With this, it’ll be the worst cotton crop ever.”

Hutchinson said he could not estimate potential damages until the fields had a “touch-and-go” chance to get sunshine and begin draining and drying out.

“I’ve never seen a 100 percent crop loss up here, but some of these fields will not be harvestable,” he said.

The AgCenter sent out about 70 agents to canvass the state, checking with farmers on the condition of their crops in the hopes of having a firmer picture and damage estimates by Monday, said Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain.

“In each region, we have challenges,” Strain said.

Gustav’s rains came after a difficult year for farmers, especially with skyrocketing costs for diesel fuel used to pump irrigation systems and higher fertilizer and pesticide costs, also tied to the price of petroleum.

“We had an expensive crop this year and it’s absolutely essential that we have high yields to pay for it,” Hutchinson said.

Another potential casualty of Gustav was the southern Louisiana sugarcane industry, which carried a 2007 value of $396.4 million and is one of the world’s largest. The American Sugar Cane League said it was too early to have any estimate on what the damage would be. But officials have said that in addition to increased costs, cane farmers have been dealing with recovery from Hurricane Rita in 2005 and new rules that allow more imported sugar.

Strain said early assessments indicated that the state’s cattle and crawfish businesses, along with dairies and the limited citrus industry had escaped major damage. He said it was unclear how the storm had affected the seafood industry, especially the brackish waters where oysters are harvested.

In north central Louisiana, where agriculture is dominated by the $1.1 billion timber industry, forests lost some trees, but apparently came out in good shape, said Allen Nipper, LSU AgCenter regional director for that area.

“There (are) trees down, but not like during Katrina when large amounts of timber were knocked down in the southeast,” Nipper said.

For the short term, Strain said the state was working to get more fuel to farmers. On Thursday, the agriculture department dispensed 427,000 gallons of gasoline and 396,000 gallons of diesel.

But Vandeven has long-term worries.

“With our input costs increasing so much and this horrible weather, it’s going to be a pretty desperate situation,” he said.

AP reporter Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.

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