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Weather robs Louisiana agriculture

BATON ROUGE, La. — Unusually wet weather this fall continues to drain cash from Louisiana's agricultural industries — and the estimated total losses for farmers now stand at $469 million, according to experts with the LSU AgCenter.

"Many Louisiana farmers are experiencing one of the worst harvest seasons ever," LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson said, adding, "The two back-to-back hurricanes caused some severe damage, and this bad situation has been made worse by unceasing post-hurricane rain."

Sugarcane was particularly hard hit and accounts for nearly $338 million of the total estimated damage. But cotton, soybeans, sweet potatoes and hay/forage crops, as well as the second crop of rice, also have seen their share of damage.

"All of this is having a disastrous effect on the Louisiana economy," Richardson stressed, adding, "The losses definitely will touch more than farmers."

Richardson pointed out that local businesses outside the agricultural industry likely will suffer, and those inside the industry definitely will see losses.

"Cotton gins, rice mills, grain elevators and sugarcane mills may not have quite as much to process — which means the owners and their employees may not make as much money and won't have as much to spend," he said. "And there also won't be as much to export, which means there won't be as much money flowing into our state's economy from the outside."

Experts say additional problems for agricultural businesses include the loss of revenue from supplemental enterprises and added wear-and-tear on equipment. For example, since cottonseed is rotting or sprouting in the fields, cotton gins, which depend on seed sales for additional revenue, will lose that income. And the volume of trash and mud coming in with sugarcane is reducing the efficiency of sugar mills and increasing the cost of sugar production.

The total estimate of agricultural damage has ballooned several times this fall. After Tropical Storm Isidore hit in late September, officials said farmers may have been saved from major damage — and estimates were as low as 10 percent losses in sugarcane, cotton and soybean crops.

But that situation changed quickly when Hurricane Lili struck a week later. Shortly after that, estimates of agricultural damage from the two storms, which were completed by LSU AgCenter faculty members in mid-October, rose to nearly $300 million.

Then the unusually heavy amounts of rainfall since the two storms continued to hamper harvesting efforts, reduce crop quality and even leave some crops rotting in the field.

Now rough estimates from LSU AgCenter economists completed this week show damages pegged at nearly $453 million — and those economists say the losses could continue to mount.

"The exact extent of damage will depend on weather conditions that persist over the next several weeks," LSU AgCenter economist Kurt Guidry said in the latest report. "For cotton, soybeans and rice, the optimal harvest time has passed — causing serious quality and yield damage, and for sugarcane, the longer the harvest window is expanded the more damage can be expected.

"A continuation of rain across the state undoubtedly will cause crops on much of the remaining unharvested acreage to be left in the field, which would, of course, increase these damage estimates."

As they now stand, damage estimates show the $338 million in sugarcane damage, as well as $52 million in damage to cotton, $42 million to soybeans, $25 million to sweet potatoes, $9 million to rice and nearly $3 million to hay and forage crops.

Sugarcane production and processing meant nearly $620 million to Louisiana last year, which means as much of half its value could be lost this year.

In addition, cotton was a $292 million crop in 2001, and soybeans brought $101 million. Last year's values for other crops were $102 million for sweet potatoes, $216 million for rice and $37 million for hay.

Of this year's damage, at least 11 Louisiana parishes have posted damages in excess of $10 million. The hardest hit of those was Vermilion Parish, with an estimate of nearly $25.9 million in agricultural damage as of mid-October.

Other mid-October estimates, which economists say probably have risen by now, from individual parishes included: $22.9 million in damage in Avoyelles Parish; $21.9 million in St. Martin; $20.3 million in Lafourche; $17.4 million in St. Landry; $17.3 million in Assumption; $17.2 million in Iberville; $14.9 million in Pointe Coupee; $13.6 million in Lafayette; $12.7 million in Iberia; and $12.3 million in St. Mary.

Tom Merrill is News Editor for LSU AgCenter Communications.

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