RALEIGH — In addition to the toll on humans, their homes and livelihoods, an agricultural disaster has unfolded in Robeson County and other areas hit by Hurricane Matthew. State agriculture officials do not have damage estimates, but the 48 counties affected by the storm are some of North Carolina’s largest agriculture counties.
Brian Long, director of Public Affairs for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said it will depend upon how long it takes waters to recede in Robeson County to determine the extent of damage to this year’s crop.
“I don’t have any real hard numbers with regard to crop damage although I know that Robeson County is one that was hit pretty hard,” Long said.
Long said on Thursday, work had began on disposing the carcasses of chickens at a poultry farm in Robeson County.
“We did make delivery of wooden materials — sawdust, wood pellets, things of that nature, carbon materials to a poultry farm in your county so that farm could begin to compost birds they had lost,” Long said.
It’s not just this year’s crop that will be affected by the storm, Long said.
“We had a report of a strawberry grower in Robeson County who had two acres of strawberries already planted,” Long said. “Two acres washed into a ditch. We’ve been talking a lot about the cotton, the peanuts, the soybeans and the sweet potatoes because the harvest was still under way but we can’t forget that there’s already work for next year’s crops that has begun.”
Farmers needing assistance can call the Ag Emergency Hotline at 1-866-645-9403. The department is operating the hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The eastern counties represent 71 percent of the state’s total farm cash receipts,” Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler said. “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.”
The 48 counties accounted for more than $9.6 billion of the $13.5 billion in farm cash receipts in 2014.
In addition to crops, Eastern North Carolina also has a large poultry and swine population. Initial reports show that 1.9 million birds, mostly broiler chickens, have died as a result of the storm. However, State Veterinarian Doug Meckes expects that number to rise. North Carolina growers raise more than 800 million birds each year.
Veterinary officials and the department’s Environmental Programs Division staff are working with growers on proper disposal of the birds. Troxler requested and was granted a $6 million grant from FEMA to purchase materials such as wood chips and wood pellets to compost the carcasses and mitigate the potential public health risk. Composting is the preferred method of disposal as it reduces leeching of farm waste, reduces pest and disease issues and prevents odor issues. The finished compost can then be used for agricultural purposes. Farms have begun requesting carbon materials and deliveries began on Thursday.
The hog industry did a good job of taking proactive measures to reduce populations or move hogs to higher ground, Troxler said. As of late Thursday, there were limited reports of swine deaths and no known hog lagoon breaches. .
“The industry learned a lot since Hurricane Floyd in 1999,” Troxler said. “Many hog farms in the 100-year flood plain were closed through a swine buyout program overseen by our Soil and Water Conservation Division.”