Hurricane Irene costs N.C. tobacco farmers $114 million

As their crops come in and they count their gains and losses, Eastern North Carolina farmers are finding that much of their profit this year was dried up by drought or blown away by Hurricane Irene.

Even before the storm left North Carolina, growers and agricultural extension agents knew that Irene would hurt tobacco and cotton the worst, but they couldn't quantify the damage until the harvest.

With the tobacco harvest finished, state officials say the value of the crop this year was worth at least $114 million less than last year, though the number of acres planted was up slightly. Average yield per acre was 1,700 pounds of tobacco on this year's crop, compared to 2,100 acres last year and an average of 2,204 pounds per acre over the past decade.

The crop was worth about $589 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Farming is difficult. You depend on so many things you can't control, and that's certainly the case this year," said Loren Fisher, associate professor of crop science and an extension tobacco specialist for N.C. State University. "It was a particularly bad year for tobacco."

Agriculture and related businesses are the state's leading industry, generating $74 billion in economic activity and accounting for nearly 700,000 jobs, according to the Department of Agriculture. More than most businesses, though, its fortunes depend upon the weather - drought some years, hurricanes in others. This year it was both.

The tobacco crop was especially vulnerable to the sustained winds and rain of Hurricane Irene when the storm pounded the coast at the end of August because so much of the harvest was still in the fields. The plants were two to three weeks behind their normal growth because of the dry, hot weather of early summer. Worse, the leaves that remained when the hurricane arrived were the most valuable ones on the plant.

The rain and wind tore the leaves, making them less valuable at harvest, and in some cases, wet weather following the hurricane drowned the plants.

In many fields, the plants were blown over. Sometimes, Fisher said, those can be stood back up, but they have to be harvested by hand instead of by mechanical harvesters that farms now use.

"Most farmers don't have the labor to pick by hand anymore," Fisher said.

There are about 1,500 tobacco operations in the state, Fisher said, with about 2,000 to 2,500 growers relying on them for income.

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