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By Greg Barnes
Shortly after sunrise today, Brunswick County farmer Jody Clemmons left his house to survey the damage Hurricane Dorian caused to his tobacco and soybean crops in fields near the coast.
What he found was expected, and heartbreaking, for a farmer who has now endured three hurricanes in four growing seasons. Dorian brought nearly 10 inches of rain and wind speeds estimated at 100 mph to Clemmons’ farm in Supply, just inland of Oak Island.
Clemmons said his home and equipment are fine, but his crops “took a beating.”
“It blew the tobacco over and beat it up real good,” he said. “What’s left no machine is going to work, everything has to be done by hand.”
NC Health News interviewed Clemmons the day before Dorian started to make its presence felt at his farm, which this year was planted with 1,500 acres of tobacco and 200 acres of soybeans. He was hopeful then that the hurricane would turn out to sea and cause only minimal damage.
This morning, Clemmons said the hurricane laid down his soybeans, but he expects them to recover. The tobacco, his cash crop, is another story.
Clemmons estimates that about half of it was destroyed, maybe more. He said he won’t be able to get back into his fields again until Saturday at the earliest. The tobacco losses could be greater if the storm dumped saltwater on them, he said. The boundary of Clemmons’ farm lies about a half-mile from the Atlantic Ocean, not far from where Dorian almost made landfall.
The salt could kill the tobacco, Clemmons said, and if it’s bruised too badly tobacco companies won’t buy it.
It’s too early to tell how other farmers in eastern North Carolina fared, but early reports from the N.C. Farm Bureau are encouraging.
“I’ve heard from about half a dozen farmers down east and the news is good,” Lynda Loveland, the bureau’s public policy director, said in an email. “Granted that’s a small number but we’re happy to hear it. The farmers I spoke to still have power. Haven’t heard of any livestock death or (hog waste) lagoon issues.”
During Hurricane Florence last September, at least six lagoons used to store hog waste suffered structural damage, with two spills and dozens overtopped their banks, some spilling nutrient-rich sewage into creeks and rivers. In that same storm, which dumped more than 30 inches of rain in some locations, an estimated 4.2 million poultry and 5,500 hogs died.
The recent rash of hurricanes has taken an economic and emotional toll on farmers, who are also dealing with low commodity prices, a trade war and other concerns.
When Clemmons was first interviewed Wednesday, he said he thought he’d be able to weather the financial hardships of another hurricane. He said he has crop insurance, but it doesn’t cover nearly all of his losses.
“To survive in agriculture, you have to make it on the crop because you can’t make it on insurance,” he said.
After Dorian, Clemmons sounded less sure that he can withstand the constant barrage of bad weather.
“I’m not complaining, but maybe it’s time for me to do something else,” he said. “There will be some soul-searching.”
Clemmons isn’t alone. Agriculture officials say many farmers in eastern North Carolina are on the brink of bankruptcy because of the storms.
“Farmers in eastern NC have endured numerous hardships year after year,” Loveland said in another email. “The success of those farms is critical to the economic wellbeing of those communities.”
After Hurricane Florence, the state passed a bill that provided $240 million to cover farmers’ losses, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Total agricultural damage caused by Florence topped $1 billion. Now, a year after Florence, Clemmons and many other farmers are still waiting on federal relief.
Congress in June passed a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill, which includes about $5.2 billion for farmers, but the bill is still awaiting President Trump’s signature to become law.
The economic losses have hurt Clemmons’ operations, but he doesn’t plan to get out of farming. It’s in his blood. He is a third-generation farmer. But he believes his operation will have to change to remain solvent.
“We’re not going to stop farming, we’re probably going to look at doing something different,” he said. “It’s like you have to have something to subsidize the farming operation now. Just got to be an entrepreneur and figure out how you can make it.”
Correction: This story originally stated that 550,000 hogs died during Hurricane Florence and that six lagoons overtopped their banks.