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Hurricane hits farmers hard

BY GEORGE PIPER | CARIBBEAN | October 10, 1998

CARIBBEAN (Oct. 10, 1998) -- Farmers from the U.S. Virgin mango orchards

to the Alabama cotton fields saw months of hope and hard work swept away in

wind and rain brought by Hurricane Georges last month.

For the Caribbean, some crops may take years to recover while islanders

face the choices of expensive imports or doing without. On the U.S.

mainland, Georges' was another in series of misfortunes for southern

farmers who have lost crops to drought, wildfires and flooding.

In the US Virgin Islands, where most of the produce is used locally, the

ability to grow fruit and manufacture fruit juices is greatly affected,

said Lawrence Lewis, deputy commissioner of agriculture in the U.S.

territory.

The 90 percent destruction at a United States Department of Agriculture

mango orchard is fairly typical to what other farmers suffered in the

three-island chain, said Lewis, adding that USDA officials are still

assessing the damage. Lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, avocados and

watermelons comprise some of the lost foods.

A key crop loss this time of year is the sorrel, which is a popular

plant served especially during Christmas celebrations.

The territory depends on other nearby Caribbean islands for items it

cannot grow locally. But Georges' rampage in those areas may mean importing

produce at high prices or going without for a while, Lewis said.

Besides bearing fruit, trees provide the aesthetic look needed on a

tropical island as well as balance to the ecosystem, said Lewis. Major tree

replanting efforts were required after hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Marilyn

(1995), and the same is likely following Georges.

Virgin Island farmers may be reaping vegetables from the soil as early

as January, said Lewis, but it may be two or three years before surviving

fruit trees are back at full production.

Officials in the Dominican Republic are estimating three years before

the coffee crop returns and another 18 months for plantains, according to

Gordon Knuckey, a field officer for the United Methodist Committee on

Relief. The need is for quick turnaround crops, such as tomatoes, peppers,

corn, broccoli and other vegetables.

In the United States, coastal areas -- especially Alabama and the

Florida Panhandle -- sustained heavy losses.

Georges wiped out about 40 percent of Alabama's cotton crop, doing most

of the damage in Baldwin and Mobile counties on the state's Gulf Coast.

In Florida, the panhandle counties of Santa Rosa, Escambia, Walton and

Okaloosa had already lost about 50 percent of its peanut and cotton crops

from drought and wildfires, said Florida Department of Agriculture press

secretary Terence McElroy. Up to 20 inches of rain brought by Georges wiped

out much of the rest.

"The portions of those crop that remained (after drought and wildfires)

actually came back and did fairly well until the flooding by the

hurricane," he said.

The state estimates loss at $8 to $10 million and fears some of the

area's farmers, most of whom have lot less than 100 acres, may not return

to till the land. "These are a lot of mom and pop operations and small

family farms, and I don't think there's any question it's had a substantial

impact on them," McElroy said.

Projected rainfalls of 20 inches never materialized in Georgia, where

agricultural losses from Georges were relegated mainly in the state's

southwest corner. Agriculture officials there aren't even separating the

damage Georges caused, but are simply adding it to an already bad year.

Drought-pierced cotton fields account for $350 to $400 million of the

projected $750 million in crop losses for 1998, said Thomas Irvin, Georgia

agriculture commissioner. He said Hurricane Bonnie actually did more damage

to the state, particularly to cotton and pecan trees.

Impact from the summer's heat and storms figures to carry into 1999.

Irvin and other southern state agriculture officials predict 30,000 farmers

from Texas to North Carolina are in jeopardy of losing their farms.

Congress has $1.5 billion for farm aid in the new appropriations bill,

but states are pushing for another $1 billion. That way, said Irvin, more

farmers can recoup at least some of their losses.

"I don't think they're going to be able to pick any cotton in those

counties," said Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Jack Thompson. At least

eight other counties were hard hit, with losses ranging from 20 to 50

percent. "Any cotton left would be low grade," he added.

About 190,000 of Alabama's 500,000 acres of planted cotton are lost, and

it comes in a year of better-than-average yield forecasts of 800 to 1,100

pounds of cotton per acre.

Winds exceeding 100 mph also blew fruit and leaves off pecan trees. Lack

of leaves means no pecan next year, said Thompson, because the leaves are

vital in the tree's nut production. In all, the state sustained about $300

million in ag-related losses.


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