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Growers, commissioner testify about vast hurricane damage

Having endured three powerful hurricanes in short order, much of Louisiana agriculture is in dire straits. On Sept. 24, the Senate Agriculture Committee heard just how desperate the situation is when several Louisiana farmers and agriculture officials provided compelling testimony on the need for disaster assistance.

The hurricanes caused “unprecedented damage,” said Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. “We're not only talking about the farmers in the field … but these storms had a domino effect on our entire agricultural industry from lenders to grain storage elevators and bankers, who are all sitting on pins and needles.”

Damages from Hurricane Gustav alone have been estimated at $700 million.

“Louisiana agriculture faces unprecedented losses from hurricanes Gustav and Ike,” said Mike Strain, Louisiana agriculture commissioner. “This is the largest natural disaster affecting agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, and fisheries in Louisiana history. No parish or commodity was spared by these storms.

“From the cattle rancher and oyster fisherman in the southernmost tip of Plaquemines Parish, to cotton farmers in the delta of East Carroll Parish all were severely impacted. Combined with the timing of these storms, just prior to harvest, and the devastation caused by the wind in Terrebonne Parish (where wind speeds reached 110 miles per hour), the flooding in Franklin Parish (24 inches), and the tidal surge in Cameron Parish (12 feet) our agricultural community is in peril.”

Strain, who has held 11 meetings across his state with farmers and ranchers, said some “common issues of concern have arisen” in the storms' wake. Among them:

  • Significantly increased input and total costs.
  • Inadequate crop insurance.
  • Insufficient disaster provisions of the farm bill.
  • Farmers who have contracts with elevators and cannot deliver the commodity.
  • Bank liens against partially filled commodity contracts.
  • Deterioration of grain and cotton quality.

Testimony by farmers at the hearing backed Strain's claims.

“This production year, even before the storms, had been stressful, said Jay Hardwick, who farms near Newellton, La., and also serves as the vice chairman of the National Cotton Council. “We experienced an unusually dry, hot June and July, excessive fuel needs and price, double fertilizer costs, a protracted farm bill process, a worrisome Doha agricultural round, and a commodities market in turmoil. And, in the aftermath of the storms, we will have additional expenses to restore land from a wet harvest and erosion control measures to repair in preparation of the 2009 crop year.

“Salvaged crops are of such poor quality that most crop production is unacceptable to contract buyers. Large domestic and international grain buyers in our area are no longer purchasing or accepting any damage grain against producer contracts. These companies are expecting the contracts to be honored. Only one farmer cooperative is accepting crops.

“Farmers are asking how to meet these contracts and determine ways to meet other financial obligations. So, one can only imagine the shock and awe of what has happened in our area. Having no crop to sell or damaged crop to apply to contracts may initiate an economic disaster perhaps far greater than the weather events alone in Louisiana.”

Sugarcane, grown in the southern half of the state, was also badly impacted. “The worst damage from Gustav to sugarcane fields occurred in Terrebonne, Assumption, Lafourche, Iberville, Ascension, West Baton Rouge and Point Coupee parishes,” testified Dickie Ellender, a sugarcane producer in Bourg, La. “The northeastern corner of the eye caused the worst stalk breakage — and this damage occurred virtually everywhere in the (sugarcane) belt.”

Varieties of sugarcane that tend to produce higher tonnage “suffered more breakage than lower yielding varieties. And the brittleness of high-yielding varieties will make cutting the cane very problematic.”

While Hurricane Ike's eye stayed south of Louisiana as it moved into Texas, “the counter-clockwise winds drove a sea surge deep into Louisiana's cane belt in a manner eerily familiar to those who experienced Hurricane Rita in 2005.”

However, in some areas the current damage is worse than that suffered with Rita, said Ellender. In some parishes “levees were topped and standing water remains to this day.”

The total cost of the hurricanes' damage to Louisiana agriculture will not be known until well into next year, said Strain. He reminded the senators that “our rural economy is dependent on the area farmer. From the small town banker, parts shop, equipment companies, contract harvester, and chemical and fertilizer dealers, agriculture is the foundation on which Louisiana is built.

“We must act quickly, because farmers cannot wait 12 to 18 months for disaster assistance. It's imperative that we get aid to these farmers within six months. Many will not be able to plant a crop next year without help. That's why I'm requesting disaster assistance of $700 million.”

Federal assistance is imperative, insisted Strain. “Small town Louisiana relies on agriculture and needs your assistance. I ask you to give this your consideration and pass this desperately needed aid.”

To read Hardwick's testimony in full, see

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