Like everyone else, farmers in the region are shaking their heads in dismay at the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew.
“We don’t have a figure yet,” said North Carolina Farm Services Agency Executive Director Bob Etheridge when he met Tuesday with Bladen County farm officials. “When all the numbers are added together, it will be extensive. I think it would be safe to say there will be hundreds of millions of dollars in loss.”
Locally, Bladen County may not have tyhose numbers for quite some time.
“The damages are there,” said blueberry farmer Ralph Carter. “We can’t see the pond (where sediment from the field washed) because we can’t get the water out, and we can’t get the water out because the rivers and creeks are full.”
Carter noted the the storm came through at the time of the year blueberries are putting forth buds for next year. With the wind knocking off leaves, the buds can’t receive the nutrients they need for growth. In addition, erosion has washed away soil from the feeder roots, and flooded or washed out roads and ditches make entire sections inaccessible.
“It will be the spring before we know the full extent of the damage,” said Carter.
This spring, however, won’t be the only time the loss will be felt. From the time a blueberry plant is placed in the ground until the time the farmer can begin harvest is four years, according to Carter.
“They’ve just got to sit there and watch that plant for years before they can make any money off of it,” said Bladen County Farm Services Agency Director Chris Tatum.
“If I’m a consumer, I don’t see that,” said Etheridge. “The farmer that lost those peanuts (for example) — his whole year is gone. It’s not just income for the farm that’s gone — it’s income for groceries. It’s like someone who works being told they’re going to be required to work, but they’re not going to get paid. That’s why we need a safety net, and it needs to be robust.”
That safety net is part of what sustains farmers through disaster or even a tough year.
“It’s part of being a farmer,” said peanut farmer Wilbur Ward with a shrug as he looked out on his field full of Matthew-induced culverts. “Farming is the biggest gamble there is. Las Vegas is a vacation — this is the real gamble. You just hope you have enough stored away.”
Assistance is available, which is the reason the farmers were meeting with Etheridge. Tatum said the agency has petitioned the USDA for money, but they will not make up for 100 percent of the loss. Farmers interested in obtaining USDA assistance may apply for it between Oct. 24 and Dec. 23 with the Farm Services Agency in Elizabethtown.
The loss to local farmers won’t be felt just by their families or even only by Bladen County. The 48 counties affected Matthew are some of the state’s largest agriculture producers, accounting for more than $9.6 billion of the $13.5 billion in cash farm receipts in 2014. Bladen County is the state’s largest blueberry producer.
Initial reports show that 1.9 million birds died as a result of the storm, and the number is expected to rise as waters recede. Tatum affirmed that poultry, as well as cattle, had been lost in Bladen County. The state was granted $6 million from FEMA to compost the carcasses.
Those invested in North Carolina farms fear far-reaching repercussions.
“When we lose a market, an individual or group is there willing to fill the gap,” stated Etheridge. “It’s not easy to get that back once it’s lost. It’s important to make sure crops are there and they’re viable.”
This year’s blow to farming is only one in a series of weather-related jabs in recent years. Two years ago, peanut farmers asked for a received federal assistance when ice throughout the region affected yield. Even last year, torrential rains threatened peanut crops and an unusually warm winter left blueberry farmers fearing their crops would begin producing in the middle of January.
“That’s why it’s so sad,” said Etheridge. “Some people are saying they’re getting out of farming because it’s just too much.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.