Hurricane provides cruel end to drought for Carolina farmers Repeated losses to storms leave growers demoralized, fretful about their future

August 30, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CURRIE, N.C. -- Before Jay Porter leaned back in his chair, propped his sore leg on a stool and listened to the thump, thump, thump of heavy raindrops on his old tin roof, he boarded up the windows of his farmhouse, filled his kerosene lamp and said adios to his crops, all of them.

Just down the road, Billy Savage got a card game going with his daughter and wife, and glanced outside as the wind began to squeal. One town over, Charles Giddens and his son settled in for a dozen games of checkers.

Then Hurricane Bonnie hit. And kept hitting. Right on through the night, long after the cards and the checkers gave way to restless sleep. When the farmers of North Carolina awoke, many of them saw only financial ruin, their crops destroyed, bankruptcy looming like more storm clouds overhead. Again.

"I knew them tobacco plants was gonna be goners," says Porter, 54, limping to the back of his farmhouse after the storm and gazing at his tilted tobacco stalks, their leaves blown off and under water. He offers the slightest of laughs and adds: "It ain't like we never seen this before."

Hurricane Bonnie, largely derided by jaded hurricane veterans on the Carolina coast as a blowhard with little punch, landed a fierce one squarely on the jaw of the state's farmers. Damage estimates are still several days off, but state officials say Bonnie will likely add up to hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses -- perhaps rivaling or surpassing Hurricane Fran's $380 million in losses in 1996.

Bonnie's punch will knock out a good many of the families who have made their living off the land. They have been battered by three hurricanes in two years, and a severe hailstorm last year did not help. Cruelly, the 10 inches of rain that Bonnie dumped on their farms ended a month-long drought that had destroyed much of their corn crops.

"Everything together, I can't ever remember things being this bad for our farmers," says Jim Graham, North Carolina's commissioner of agriculture for the past 34 years. "I'm supposed to be all optimistic and do this positive-spin stuff, but I don't know how a lot of those boys are going to make it."

Agriculture was an $8.3 billion industry in 1997, and much of that money was generated on small farms like Porter's, which have been run by the same families not for years, but for generations. Last year, there were 57,000 farms in North Carolina.

When Bonnie finally departed, after spitting rain on the farms for a full 24 hours and whipping crops with winds over 75 mph, not even the usually stoic soybean plants were intact. Tobacco stalks were blown to the ground, left to drown. Corn plants, burned from the drought, lay not in neat brown rows but with ears scattered across the fields.

The healthiest plants around were the purple-flowering morning glories, a deceptively beautiful weed whose main function is to strangle the crops of farmers.

"Tell it like this, because this is how it's true," says Porter. "It's a one-time deal. You get one time to make a crop. If it gets blowed apart, it's a year before you get a chance at another one. Bonnie was our third strike in a row."

Crop damages could reach Fran proportions mostly because so many tobacco plants were lost. Fran struck Sept. 6, 1996, after most tobacco leaves grown in southeast North Carolina were already at market or being cured in barns. Bonnie struck when more than half of the crops were still in the field.

Farmers harvest the flue tobacco grown in these parts by using machines to pick the leaves from the bottom third of the plants. A week or two later, they pick the middle portion and then grab the tops -- the most valuable part of the plant -- at season's end. Most farmers had harvested only the bottom third of the plants when Bonnie struck.

"Insurance don't begin to pay for it," says Savage, 57. "People don't have no conception. It's hundreds of thousands of dollars gone -- poof -- and it's borrowed money.

"Truth? I don't know what we're going to do next year. I don't think there's going to be a next year."

Savage, like many farmers in North Carolina, was having a bad year before the drought and hurricane. Theirs is a place where corn silos and water towers form the skylines and where fun is fishing for bass in farm ponds named for their owners.

There is nothing simple about agriculture, though. Many of these farmers, like Savage, have been fighting a losing battle not just with the weather but with black shank, a disease that attacks the root system of tobacco plants until it kills the entire stalk.

The farmers could go after the leaves that hung onto their stalks through Bonnie, but that will be difficult if not impossible. Because the plants are leaning so severely, the machinery used to strip them will not work. North Carolina has sent prison inmates to some areas to help straighten the plants, but the ground of many farms, so softened by the water, will not support the machinery.

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