Farmers brace for storm damage

While residents of New Orleans and the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi battled flooding in their homes and streets, cotton growers were keeping a wary eye on their fields to see how much damage the wind and rains caused.

Many producers had stopped harvesting one of their most promising crops in several years after 4 to 5 inches of rain fell in the area last weekend. A few returned to their fields at mid-week only to be chased out on Wednesday by the bands of rain being pushed north by Isidore.

Weather observers like Jay Grymes, state climatologist at Louisiana State University, who spent the night at the Office of Emergency Preparedness watching Tropical Storm Isidore blow into Mississippi, said the damage could have been worse in coastal areas.

“It’s a cliché, but we pretty much dodged a bullet,” said Grymes. “We’re seeing mainly good news, although in some cases, hell broke loose in some parts of Louisiana. What could have been a major storm – what looked like a major storm three days ago – turned out to be a very wet storm, but not incredibly destructive.”

As of noon Thursday, the Isidore’s center was in southern Mississippi. It appears it will race off to the northeast in the next day or so. Grymes says once it leaves there’s some pretty decent weather to come. By late Thursday, winds should begin to slow and rains end. Skies should clear from west to east.

“Friday and Saturday look great. If you’re a football fan, Saturday should suit you,” says Grymes.

Louisiana’s cotton crop also appears to have escaped major damage from Isidore.

“Folks down here were extremely worried about the storm but what ended up happening wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been,” says Sandy Stewart, Louisiana Extension cotton specialist. “The rainfall intensity and the wind never got to the level where a lot of cotton was knocked out of bolls. There’s not too much on the ground. At most, the early estimates are that we lost 10 percent.”

Stewart says the further north and west one goes, the less the storm damage.

“Around the Shreveport area, storm trouble is minimal. As you move down the Red River Valley towards Baton Rouge, the more damage you see. In the northeast – the closer to the Mississippi River you get – the rain was heavier and is still falling. ”

Stewart says the state has a lot of cotton that’s been defoliated. Last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday farmers were out harvesting all they could before Isidore hit. Many pickers ran into the early morning hours of Wednesday. While there are no hard numbers yet, yields look surprisingly good.

“I’ve heard of plenty of two-bale cotton and some higher than that. Farmers seem to be pleased.”

In the storm’s aftermath, soybeans are a major concern, says David Lanclos, Louisiana Extension soybean, corn and sorghum specialist.

“We’ve got about 35 percent of the beans – both irrigated and dryland – harvested, but that leaves a large percentage still in the field. About 15 percent of our soybeans are ready to cut and should have been cut this week. The remaining 50 percent is in the dry-down stage and is two to three weeks from being cut.”

If there is any positive news about this storm it’s that Louisiana was extremely late in planting a lot of soybeans.

“For the most part, we haven’t had enough wind damage to put them on the ground and not enough water to cause diseases or rotting,” says Lanclos.

Along the coastal parishes, water levels that rose over the last couple of days should steadily subside. That’s welcome news for some of the areas dealing with flooded roadways.

Grymes says if you draw a line from east Baton Rouge down to St. Mary’s Parish, any land to the west of that line got only minor rainfall – 1 to 2 inches for the storm event. But when you move from west to east, the rainfall increases.

“From St. Helena Parish to the coast, rainfall went from 4 inches up. Basically everything south of Lake Pontchartrain and east of St John Parish is in the 7 or 8-inch range. There’s a core of very heavy rainfall in the New Orleans metro area east of 10 to 12 inches with some spots getting 15 inches. These are rain amounts that spun up very quickly.”

While Louisiana is saying goodbye to Isidore, Grymes says by Sunday residents will potentially be saying hi to Tropical Storm Lili.

“Lili is in the central Caribbean and can’t seem to make up her mind about what direction to go. If she gets organized, she could hit the Gulf of Mexico and come inland. If Lili can stay organized, it’s close to 50/50 she ends up in the Gulf.”

What could Lili mean to Louisiana cotton?

“We’ve still got a lot of cotton out,” says Stewart. “Some sunny weather is coming in so that should help. But with Lili on the way, I don’t think many farmers will be at football games on Saturday. They’re liable to be in the fields harvesting all the cotton they’ve defoliated.”

At this point, Stewart is hesitant to advise farmers to defoliate even more. The reason is leaves on the plants may provide a buffer to any rain Lili might dump next week.

“The leaves offer some measure of protection. I certainly wouldn’t defoliate any more cotton than I could pick by the end of next week. We need to see what Lili is going to do.”

Lanclos says he’s very concerned about Lili.

“If that hits, it could be bad. We need sunshine and dry weather. We’ve got a lot of beans on heavy clay and if we continue to get hard rains we won’t be able to get harvesting equipment into fields. Things could turn south very quickly for the soybeans that are ready.”

Lanclos says the state’s corn and sorghum crops are pretty much done – in the 95 percent harvested range.

“Any of the corn and sorghum still out was probably planted so late it wouldn’t have a big impact on bottom-line yield anyway.”

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