Farmers across the southeastern part of North Carolina are just starting to report details about the hit they’ve taken from Hurricane Florence. The rain is over, but rivers still are rising, and the full picture of damage to farms and the surrounding environment probably won’t be known for weeks.
Before the hurricane, many were worried about thousands of open-air ponds where farmers store manure from their hogs, allowing the waste to decompose. According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, as of noon on Sept. 18, the walls on four of these “lagoons” had failed, allowing manure to escape. Nine additional lagoons had been inundated by flooding from nearby streams, and 13 had received so much rainfall that they had overflowed their banks. Several dozen more were at or near the limit of what they can hold.
These lagoons have already been the focus of intense political controversy in North Carolina. Some residents who live near them have filed lawsuits against a large pork processor, accusing the company of creating a public nuisance and environmental hazard, and won million-dollar judgments.
After Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, the state of North Carolina bought out many hog farmers and permanently shut down hundreds of manure lagoons that lay within the flood plains of rivers.
A spokesperson for the state said that officials do not yet have any information on the number of hogs that may have been trapped by floodwaters. During Hurricane Floyd, thousands of hogs drowned.
State officials have not yet carried out their own inspections of hog farms, and they’re relying on farmers to report any damage. Some farms still may not have power or phone service.
Sanderson Farms, a poultry company with big operations in North Carolina, says that 60 of its 880 production chicken houses in the state have flooded. As a result, 1.7 million birds died, out of a total population of about 20 million. In addition, four out of 92 “breeder” houses flooded. These crucial farms are where mature chickens lay the eggs from which the baby chicks hatch. According to the company, an additional 30 chicken houses holding 6 million birds near the town of Lumberton have been cut off by flood waters, and those birds could die if the company can’t resupply them with feed.
North Carolina’s farms grow about half of the country’s sweet potatoes, and Florence hit right at the start of harvest. “There’s no way I can tell you” how much damage the flooding will cause, says Regan Boyette, with Boyette Brothers Produce in Wilson, N.C. It depends on how quickly farmers can get into the fields to resume harvesting. If sweet potatoes sit in waterlogged fields for too long, they can rot.