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Lili damages crops, wetlands, trees

Preliminary estimates from AgCenter experts show the heaviest damage probably was suffered by the state's sugarcane and cotton farmers in or near the storm's path through southern and central Louisiana.

But they point out losses also will be seen in other enterprises ranging from soybeans to the state's coastal wetlands – particularly since Lili came on the heels of last week's trek of Tropical Storm Isidore, coming up through Louisiana and then veering off to the northeast through Arkansas and Mississippi.

LSU AgCenter crop specialists pegged sugarcane losses as high as 35 percent in areas hit directly by the storm and said cotton losses may exceed 50 percent in some locations.

"The storm passed through a good portion of Louisiana's Cane Belt," said Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. The biggest problem with sugarcane may have come from lodging of the stalks first from Isidore’s and then Lili’s high winds.

"Where we saw as much as 90 percent of the cane lodged last week as a result of Isidore, now it looks as though 100 percent of the cane is lodged," Legendre said. "Some of it was lodged during Isidore, then it started to straighten up and now it's been pushed the other way by Lili.

"Lodging will slow down harvesting and increase fuel, labor and overall harvest costs," he said. "It all means harvesters will not operate efficiently, and there will be an increase in the amount of trash going to the mill, which will increase transportation costs as well as affect sugar quality."

Legendre said losses vary by parish but were greatest in Vermilion Parish followed by parts of Acadia, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin, St. Landry and Avoyelles parishes, and he estimated the overall average loss for farmers could be as high as $100 to $150 per acre.

Farther north, Sandy Stewart, a researcher and Extension specialist with the AgCenter, said strong winds and rain from Hurricane Lili severely affected the cotton crop in central Louisiana – where he estimated as much as 50 percent of cotton may have been blown to the ground, making it unfit for harvest.

"Based on visual observations and my experience, the extent of the damage ranges from 20 percent to more than 50 percent," Stewart said of his observations of fields in Pointe Coupee, Avoyelles, Evangeline, St. Landry and Rapides parishes.

Stewart also said quality losses will be seen from water damage to already harvested cotton waiting to be ginned and to "weathered cotton" still in the fields.

"Quality losses will undoubtedly cause a reduction in the overall value of remaining cotton that is harvested and ginned," Stewart said.

In northeastern Louisiana, cotton losses appeared to vary from 10 percent to 15 percent - but might go as high as 20 percent in certain areas from cotton being blown off the stalks, according to Joel Faircloth, LSU AgCenter Extension cotton specialist.

Worse yet, Stewart and Faircloth say the situation could get worse unless farmers see dry weather.

"My concerns have shifted to the cumulative effect of rainfall from Lili and rains we are currently receiving," Faircloth said. "Continuous rainfall can allow for the entry of pathogens into the boll as it opens, resulting in hard-locked cotton."

Stewart said many fields also were showing boll rot epidemics.

"These bolls had already begun to rot due to wet conditions prior to Lili and the heavy rain associated with the hurricane," he said, adding that additional rain was falling Monday morning. "This rain is likely to further the deterioration, and losses will therefore continue to mount in many fields. The overall scenario is not promising."

Soybean losses also could be aggravated by wet conditions, according to LSU AgCenter soybean specialist Dr. David Lanclos, who said soybean farmers were fortunate that about 50 percent of the crop already was harvested prior to the storms the past couple of weeks – and that only about 10 percent of the remaining crop was vulnerable at the time of the storms.

"We really need drier weather statewide so producers can get into the field to harvest on time," Lanclos said. "But fields have seen a lot of moisture from both Isidore and Lili."

Lanclos said his other concerns were that some of the plants now ready to harvest could have seed sprouting due to the high moisture and that combines will have a more difficult time because of lodging in certain areas of the state.

"Most of the loss will not be in quantity, it will be in quality of the crop," he said.

As for other losses, among the major areas of damage were Louisiana's coastal wetlands.

"The marshes of coastal Louisiana were hit very hard, and several of our protective barrier islands were breached," said Rex Caffey, LSU AgCenter wetlands and coastal resources specialist. "These narrow strips of land are critical as a first line of defense against storms and hurricanes."

Caffey said saltwater driven into these coastal areas by storm surges also could do additional damage to the coastal wetlands – particularly loss of vegetation which, in turn, could lead to more coastal erosion.

"There is also an economic concern about marsh health as we enter the waterfowl hunting season," Caffey said. "Damaged marsh and camps could spell tremendous problems for coastal landowners who rely heavily on lease income from hunters seeking ducks and geese."

Moving to other losses, LSU AgCenter horticulturists say the state's nursery businesses and homeowners weren't spared from damage either.

LSU AgCenter horticulturist Allen Owings said some damage was done to greenhouses and "shade structures" used by nurseries along the storm's path - and that some plant losses were recorded.

"Another problem was the loss of power in some areas," Owings said. "These businesses depend on power to run heating and cooling systems in the greenhouses and to run some of their irrigation systems, but fortunately the larger ones had generators that helped them to keep going."

LSU AgCenter horticulturist Denyse Cummins, who is based in one of the areas hardest hit by the storm, said some public parks and gardens suffered tree damage as did most homes in the southern parishes hardest hit by the storm.

"Many water oaks and other columnar trees and smaller ornamental trees like crape myrtles have been pushed over or split, and a lot of pines have been snapped in home landscapes," Cummins said. "But it's good most of our public and home plantings are in live oaks. With their wide spreading root systems, the tops are littering the ground, but the trees are still standing and stand an excellent chance of recovery."

Even pastures suffered some damage, according to LSU AgCenter forage specialist Ed Twidwell, who said cattle producers are likely to see reduced grazing days because of wet pastures, lower hay production and reduced hay quality, among other problems, because of the storm.

Sugarcane production and processing meant nearly $620 million to Louisiana last year, while cotton was a $292 million crop in 2001 and soybeans brought $101 million.

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