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By Greg Barnes
The only thing Brunswick County farmer Jody Clemmons can do now is wait.
Is there still a chance that a high pressure ridge could push Hurricane Dorian back out to sea, he wondered Wednesday morning?
That is unlikely at this stage. The National Weather Service in Raleigh says to expect hurricane-force winds up to 100 mph inland of the North Carolina coast on Wednesday night and Thursday, and tropical storm-force winds as far west as Fayetteville and Rocky Mount. The potential for major flooding exists in coastal counties, and moderate to localized flooding is likely to occur as far west as Durham.
Clemmons grows 1,500 acres of tobacco and 200 acres of soybeans on a farm near the unincorporated community of Supply that has been in his family for three generations. He said he has done all he can to prepare for Hurricane Dorian.
Clemmons said about a third of his tobacco has been harvested. The soybeans aren’t ready yet. At this point, he said, the only thing left to do is prepare the generators and secure the farm equipment.
The border of Clemmons’ property lies a half-mile from the Atlantic Ocean, inland of Oak Island. Dorian, the third named storm in four years, will likely be on his doorstep by morning.
“It’s kind of like it’s become the new norm. Like it’s every year,” Clemmons said.
Florence was the worst. Clemmons said it wiped out his entire tobacco crop. That’s where he made the most money. Money that is becoming increasingly harder for North Carolina farmers to earn.
Farmers have been struggling — economically and emotionally — for years. They have faced low prices for their crops and livestock, mounting pressure from nuisance lawsuits over hog farms, a trade war, and now yet another hurricane.
“I’m a little beat up this morning, to be honest with you,” Clemmons said. “We’ve got a really good crop in the field. Who’s going to say what’s going to be left in 48 hours.”
The magic number is four.
That’s the number of inches of rainfall that farmers would find “somewhat manageable” on their fields, said Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner of consumer protection for the N.C Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
Much more rain than that could cause serious crop damage, Reardon said.
“Hopefully, that won’t be the case with this storm,” he said.
But that’s looking less likely as Dorian churns its way ever closer. Forecasters say isolated areas of the state, including Clemmons’ farm, could see as much as 10 inches of rain. That could be devastating for those farmers confronted with the highest wind speeds and the heaviest rain.
“Coming on the back of Florence would just be absolutely catastrophic to our farming community,” Reardon said. ”In many cases, these farmers would simply go out of business.”
Robin Tutor-Marcom is the director of the N.C. Agromedicine Institute, based at East Carolina University. Part of the institute’s mission is to help farmers fight mental health problems that all too often come with one of the country’s most stressful jobs. The suicide rate among male farmers is about double that of the general population, according to the National Farmers Union.
In North Carolina, having three hurricanes in four years hasn’t helped matters.
“Farmers are still recuperating from previous storms and are counting on this year to be a good year financially,’’ said Tutor-Marcom, who was raised in a farm family and who has two sons in the business. “Given that many are already struggling financially, another catastrophic weather event can put them out of business. They simply can’t continue to take substantial losses.”
Rushing the harvest
As he did before Hurricane Florence, Gov. Roy Cooper has signed an executive order suspending transportation regulations, making it easier for farmers to harvest crops, bring in more feed and move hogs, poultry and other livestock to higher ground ahead of Dorian.
Since the order, with Hurricane Florence still fresh in their minds, farmers have been working almost nonstop to prepare.
It hasn’t been quite a year since Florence caused more than $1 billion in agricultural damage in North Carolina, flooding farm fields and killing more than 4.2 million poultry and 550,000 hogs. More than 30 inches of rain was recorded in some areas of the state.
While farmers have been harvesting what they can before Dorian’s expected arrival, sweet potatoes, cotton and other crops aren’t ready to come out of the fields.
Reardon said about half of the state’s tobacco crop and 80 percent of its sweet potatoes have yet to be harvested. Significant amounts of corn, soybeans and hemp also remain in the fields, he said. Typically, many types of row crops aren’t harvested until late October or early November.
High wind poses another threat, especially to tobacco, corn and hemp, Reardon said.
North Carolina ranks first in the country in sweet potato and tobacco production, second in hogs and poultry and third in cucumbers and fresh market strawberries. Altogether, agriculture accounts for nearly $85 billion of the state’s economy and employs 16 percent of its workforce, according to the state’s agricultural department.
To lose a large number of farmers because of Hurricane Dorian would have an economic and social ripple effect across the state, especially in rural areas, Reardon said. It would also hurt the country and the world. North Carolina exports about 30 percent of its row crops, said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.
Wooten said net farm income has declined 53 percent nationally since 2013. The number of Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies rose 13 percent from January 2018 through June of this year, according to figures from the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Sadly, Wooten said, farmers in North Carolina were optimistic about this growing season. Other than corn, crops were looking good, he said.
“This storm, like last year, couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Wooten said.
In response to the economic plight of farmers, the U.S. Senate early this month approved the Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019. The act, which is now awaiting President Trump’s signature, aims to help family farms reorganize after falling on hard times. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
“Farmers in North Carolina and across the country are reeling from low commodity prices and natural disasters that will take years to recover from,” Tillis said in a statement after the Senate vote. “As these farmers rebuild their reserves, they deserve protections during this delicate time when so much could go wrong that is outside of their control.”
Watching the sky
Clemmons said he expects to be able to weather financially through Dorian.
“I think we are going to work through it but it’s tough,” he said. “I don’t know how much more we can withstand.”
Clemmons said he worries about the 18 migrant workers on his farm almost as much as he does his own family.
“When we lose our crop they lose their job,” he said.
So Clemmons keeps a close eye on the weather reports, hoping for a high pressure ridge to turn Dorian out to sea.
That’s all he can do now. Hope, and wait.