Blackened Rangeland Kay Ledbetter, Texas AgriLife
Devastating wildfires were only part of a year of disasters and losses for farmers across the Sunbelt.

Hurricanes, floods, drought and wildfires, 2017 the year of disasters

From wildfires in Texas, Oklahoma and other states, to hurricanes that ravaged large parts of Texas, southern Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, to drought-like conditions in parts of the Northern Plains, crops and livestock have been lost, infrastructure has been damaged and destroyed, and many farmers and ranchers are facing serious financial challenges this year, a few even voicing concern that such tough times threaten their future agricultural operations.

Major weather events and unexpected disasters are nothing new to farmers. From droughts to floods and wildfires, to early and late season freezes, weather can be your best friend or your biggest enemy, and disasters often come like a thief in the night.

This year, 2017, has been a challenging one for many agricultural producers. From wildfires in Texas, Oklahoma and other states, to hurricanes that ravaged large parts of Texas, southern Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, to drought-like conditions in parts of the Northern Plains, crops and livestock have been lost, infrastructure has been damaged and destroyed, and many farmers and ranchers are facing serious financial challenges this year, a few even voicing concern that such tough times threaten their future agricultural operations.

While producers are resilient and most will weather the damages in the long run and rebuild to face the challenges of a new year, the more immediate question may be how bad will the current season prove to be when all is said and done? What will be the cost of rebuilding, and how difficult will it be to take a hit on farm and ranch finances and still move forward for another year?

NOT AN EASY LIFE

Producers are no strangers to setbacks and failures, like lost crops and livestock. No one said farming was easy. Most agree hard work, resilience, good planning and the creativity and ability to turn lemons into lemonade is what it takes to farm and ranch. And perhaps more than that, understanding that some years are going to be good years, some will be better, and some might be disastrous. It goes with the territory, and this year is no exception.

In spite of all the hardships many producers face this year, there is another side of the coin. For example, while cotton farmers in Texas and southeastern states were set to benefit from an exceptionally good cotton year until Hurricanes Harvey and Irma destroyed their hopes, a resulting shortage of cotton might help to drive up the price of cotton for farmers who were unaffected by the storm.

USDA analysts and crop consultants are now speculating the same could be said for nut, fruit and vegetable growers. While many lost their crops to wind and water associated with these storms, others who were unaffected may benefit as supply of these specialty crops fall short of demand.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Two major hurricane landfalls, one in Texas and the other in Florida, wreaked havoc on regional farms and ranches. According to the USDA, the storms hit some of the nation's least-insured crops. In Florida, for example, strawberry farms, representing about 2 percent of the nation's production, were destroyed. And Florida peppers, about 16 percent of all U.S. pepper crops, were badly damaged or completely destroyed.

Former USDA deputy secretary Krista Harden says federally backed crop insurance programs cover a high percent of most crops, like cotton and corn, but vegetable crops are lagging far behind with only about 34 percent coverage of the nation’s produce. Many other specialty crops are not covered by the program at all. Harden says as a result of recurring and stronger weather systems in recent years, federal crop insurance is needed more now than ever before.

She points out that in some instances farmers have simply chosen not to participate in the program because of cost restraints, but in other cases, insurance offerings are limited. That is the case with strawberries for example, where crop insurance offerings provide only a small pilot program.

USDA says, however, all crops can be insured through a whole-farm revenue-protection program introduced in 2015, but the program is not practical for many small, specialty crop operations.

USDA says it does not have the final numbers for the total damage associated with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma yet, but Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue estimated Harvey's losses to be near or top the $1 billion mark.

Heather Manzano, the acting administrator for the USDA's Risk Management Agency, says it's too early to predict crop-insurance payouts for either disaster.

Also hard hit in Florida is the citrus industry. That industry has been damaged in several years recently from diseases and weather-related events. Ellis Hunt Jr., a Florida citrus grower and Chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, says many of the citrus trees on his family's 5,000 acre orchard are badly damaged, many of them completely lost.

"It's a severe blow," Hunt told NPR Radio in an interview last month. "All farmers are extremely resilient and tough and just so stubborn that no matter what happens, they all get up, and we go again because that's what you do if you're a farmer. But it's a very significant blow, especially in south Florida."

HEAVY LOSS TO CITRUS AND NUT CROPS

He said much of the state's crop is a total loss this year, and questions remain about the ability of many orchards to produce next year.

In Georgia and South Carolina, nut growers are reporting a serious hit from Irma. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension pecan specialist Lenny Wells says most pecan orchards in his state experienced some degree of damage as the hurricane moved across the state. He says nuts were blown out of trees, limbs were broken, and some trees were toppled by high winds. Recovery will be slow, but the total financial loss of nuts this year is still unknown.

Georgia officials have estimated that what was expected to be a bumper year for pecan production, about $110 million, post-storm production may be as low as $70 million.

It's not just hurricanes that have plagued growers and livestock producers this year. Beginning in March, wildfires in Oklahoma and Texas charred nearly one million acres of open range. Wildfires also caused extensive damage in Kansas, Colorado and Florida. In Texas alone, an estimated $24 million in losses of cattle, fences, buildings and corrals have been attributed to spring wildfires. Over 5,000 head of cattle were displaced or lost, and tens of thousands of acres of hay and pasture land used to produce feed were destroyed by fire.

While there is no official count of dead cattle related to Hurricane Harvey yet, officials estimate that 1.2 million head were at risk from wind and floods related to the storm. The total losses to the cattle industry and to farmers is expected to be devastating according to federal and state agricultural officials

THE UGLY SIDE OF DISASTERS

In spite of heavy losses to weather and other disasters this year, most producers say overcoming diversity is an integral part of farming and ranching, and most agree that time and good weather have a way of healing wounds. Most also agree that the sooner that happens, the better it will be for an industry that has been bruised and battered by very challenging year.

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