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Farmers on Mississippi's Gulf Coast face devastating losses

POPLARVILLE, Miss.—The dairy cows that belong to south Mississippi farmer Dwayne Peterson somehow survived Hurricane Katrina's strongest winds, finding shelter in swales when the huge storm came ashore.

It's what happened afterward that left him without a herd.

With no electricity, Peterson's farm came to a standstill. Unable to feed his animals or cool their milk, Peterson was forced to sell them for a fraction of their value before hunger and stress turned deadly.

His 80-acre farm now sits empty.

"It's hard to handle it," Peterson said quietly, his face creased with fatigue. "You do what you've got to do. You don't really have a choice."

While urban misery has captured much of the nation's attention, Mississippi's family farmers are equally devastated. With ruined crops, hungry livestock and blown-down barns, farmers are facing losses to livelihoods that took years, sometimes generations, to build.

Statewide, 300 poultry houses have been destroyed, each containing at least 20,000 birds. Timber losses are estimated at more than $2 billion. Cotton plants are gnarled, mangled and in some cases flattened. So is the rice crop.

Peterson and neighboring farmers figure that at least 500 cows have been sold to a Texan dairyman or hauled away to slaughter.

Peterson was born here and has farmed since he was 12. Now 45, stocky and tanned, he's seen plenty of hurricanes. But nothing prepared him for Katrina.

He and his family sat out the hurricane in their modest brick home, listening to howling winds for 17 hours.

After Katrina passed, Peterson was relieved to discover that his herd of 76 Holstein cattle, usually worth $1,800 to $3,500 each, had survived the storm. Even his 10 little heifer calves had made it.

Peterson and his son quickly went to work clearing a path to the barn so the cows could enter to eat and be milked.

"You've got to milk two times a day, 4 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon," he said. "They have to have routine. You can't miss or they get stressed, they get sick. You've got to baby them."

But once in the barn, the cows found nothing to eat: The wind had destroyed the augers that drop grain from the silos to the troughs. The cows grew hungry and restless as Peterson tried to milk them.

Even worse, the generator that was running the milking machines was unreliable. And the milk couldn't be cooled. One generator wasn't adequate to run the compressor for two 700-gallon stainless steel cooling tanks at 40 degrees, as required to keep the milk safe. And the generator was consuming precious diesel fuel, 60 to 80 gallons a day, with no more on the horizon.

Every day, Peterson poured hundreds of gallons of warm milk down the drain.

He called neighboring farmers in a 15-mile radius. Their anxiety grew. "All the rest of the guys and I, we got together here and all started talking and thinking, trying to figure out what to do," he said.

Phone service was erratic, but Peterson found a buyer in Stevensville, Texas, untouched by Katrina.

Peterson's cows were dropping in value every day because of stress.

The Texas buyer arrived quickly, pulling an empty stock trailer. He bought the strongest ones for $1,000 a head, less than half their original value. The rest were hauled away by an auction house in Kentwood, La., for $750 each.

Within three days, they were all gone.

"I had to do something. If I had waited, it would have been a total loss," Peterson said.

The loss of the milk won't be felt by American consumers, or even Mississippians. The region's giant milk processor, Dairy Fresh Corp. in Mobile, Ala., can find replacement milk at farms far from Katrina's wrath.

But for small farmers such as Peterson and his neighbors, recovery will be far tougher.

"It's a hard living. It's not much money, but you get it in your blood," he said.

"There's nobody to be angry at. It's just life."

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(Krieger reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared 31 Mississippi counties agricultural disaster areas. A look at the damage:

_Forestry: Early estimates indicate that timber losses could be well over $2 billion. It takes 30 years to grow a pine tree. When one is toppled, it must be milled within four to eight weeks to prevent fungal infection.

_Poultry: Estimates are that 2,400 of the state's 8,700 poultry houses were damaged and 300 destroyed. One poultry house typically contains 20,000 to 25,000 birds.

_Dairy: Many on-farm milking facilities were destroyed. Loss of power made farms dump milk because of the lack of refrigeration.

_Rice: About 20 percent of the yield statewide is thought to be a total loss.

_Cotton: Sustained high winds damaged the crop.

_Corn: It's estimated that 50 percent of plants have been blown over, slowing harvest. Many kernels have dropped to the ground.

_Pecans: Throughout the state, the crop is devastated.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Katrina farm

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