A complete loss assessment will take time, but several different agriculture sectors were affected when Hurricane Laura made landfall at the end of last week. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the system tied a 19th century storm as the strongest hurricane to cross the Louisiana coastline.
According to LSU AgCenter, the effects on agriculture appear to be less destructive than most people feared before Hurricane Laura struck. Still, rice, sugarcane, poultry and cattle producers are among those picking up the pieces after the storm.
Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry Mike Strain, D.V.M., said the hurricane greatly impacted areas where much of the state’s poultry industry is located. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry (LDAF) has established a hotline for poultry farmers as a resource for those in need of fuel.
“Access to fuel has been difficult and with widespread power outages, there is a need to keep generators operating to keep the poultry houses cool and help save the flocks,” Strain said.
Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter agent for sugarcane in the Bayou Teche area, said cane plants have been blown down, or lodged, throughout the area, and some plants were submerged in floodwater.
Much of the cane appeared to be laying in one direction, which could make harvest somewhat less difficult, he said.
Farmers had not completed cane planting, and that process will be even more difficult because of wet fields and downed cane that will be used for seed.
Sugarcane harvest is expected to begin in mid-September for some mills, and all mills are scheduled to begin by early October. “It’s going to take longer to harvest and cost more money,” Hebert said.
The surge wasn’t as bad as expected, so fields to the north won’t be as affected by flooding. “It’s not the best-case scenario, but it’s not the worst-case scenario,” he said.
Hebert is concerned that fields affected by flooding will also be littered with debris. He recalled that farmers had to deal with butane bottles that were washed into the fields after previous hurricanes.
Ricky Gonsoulin, a farmer in New Iberia, said he has about 2,500 acres of sugarcane flooded. The tops of the cane stalks are split “so it’s going to take sugar to repair itself,” he said.
The flood was about 3 feet lower than the flooding that accompanied Hurricane Rita in 2005, and it doesn’t have the salinity of the tidal surge from that storm, Gonsoulin said. It took five to seven years for fields flooded by Rita to recover from the salt level.
Gonsoulin is concerned about his newly planted cane that’s completely submerged. “Once it goes over the levee, it’s like a bathtub, and we’ve got to let it out,” he said of the floodwater. He has made cuts in levees and has pumps working to drain the water, “but the tides are working in our favor,” he said.
Errol Domingue, a farmer near Erath, has 800 acres of sugarcane where water has to be pumped off. But because the water was still above the levee, he has to wait for it to recede.
The sugarcane plants have been pushed over, but the tops don’t appear to be broken. “It’s down all one way, and not mangled up,” Domingue said.
“There’s still a great crop out there,” Gonsoulin said, adding that harvest will be more of a problem in fields that also have debris.
Some rice that had not been harvested yet or was planted for crawfish showed little damage. “The rice around here seemed to have fared pretty well,” Todd Fontenot, AgCenter agent in Evangeline Parish, said. Soybeans in the area didn’t appear to be damaged either.
“A lot of rice was cut over the weekend and up until Tuesday,” Fontenot said. One farmer, with help from neighbors, managed to harvest 350 acres of rice in one day.
Adlar Stelly, a farmer from Kaplan, evacuated his family and returned to his home south of Kaplan to discover everything was okay except for 190 acres out of 2,000 acres of rice that he is unable to harvest.
“I thought I was coming back to a flooded house and every acre of my farm underwater,” he said.
The rice was flooded by freshwater, and Stelly expects to start pumping off the floodwater in a day or two.
More than 90% of the rice in Acadia Parish had been harvested before the storm, said Jeremy Hebert, AgCenter agent in Acadia Parish. What rice was left in the field was knocked down and is under water.
“We’ve got great farmers, and they banded together and teamed up to help get as much rice out of the field as they could the week before the storm,” Hebert said.
Shrimp processing facilities at Intracoastal City had flooded, said AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant aquaculture agent Mark Shirley. But water was receding, and the businesses were starting the cleanup process.
Kyle LeBoeuf, cattle producer a cattle producer at Holmwood, had significant damage to his home. The roof on one side of his house was demolished and torn away, and a horse barn was destroyed.
His cattle behind his house were okay, but “I had some in Creole that got lost,” he said. This is the second time LeBoeuf has had a house destroyed by a hurricane.
During a discussion with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at the National Assn. of State Agricultural Departments (NASDA) virtual meeting Monday afternoon, Dr. Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, shared that there is 100% devastation from the hurricane that came with 17-foot tidal surges.
“Complete herds of cattle are no longer there,” Strain said, adding that rice and cotton fields experienced substantial damage.
Strain asked Perdue if there would be WHIP+ (Wildlife and Hurricane Indemnity Program) funds available for the recent hurricanes and derecho. Perdue said the real answer is up to Congress. The USDA secretary has directed his staff to try determine how much in WHIP+ funds were used in 2018 and 2019 as that program’s regulations did not have an end sign up date.
Perdue said the agency is attempting to calculate what kind of resources may be leftover from what Congress originally authorized to see if those funds can help aid producers from the most recent disasters.