Louisiana farmers struggling in Lili's aftermath

What is known is that the cumulative impact of Lili and the winds and rain from Tropical Storm Isidore the previous week wiped out what for many farmers had been projected to be one of the best crops ever for sugarcane and cotton, Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Bob Odom said.

“Continuing daily rains across most of the state since the passage of Hurricane Lili are only aggravating an already bad situation,” said Odom.

“Ongoing data collection combined with the incessant rains make it impractical to fix a precise dollar figure for losses,” Odom said. “However, final losses will probably be in the $300 million to $500 million range.”

The commissioner said a visual assessment of the storm damage in central and south Louisiana would give anyone pause.

“The sugarcane crop was a twisted, matted mess in most areas, with 30 to 35 percent loss estimates by several farmers. Saturated ground left over from Hurricane Isidore a week earlier, combined with Lili’s 10 inches of rain will slow the speed of combines moving through the fields,” he said.

“The loss of electricity for a week at the sugar mills will postpone grinding. Both events will push harvest deeper into the winter, placing the crop at greater risk when first frost shuts down sugar production. Also, the excess water will be soaked up by the cane and hinder sugar production in the individual stalks.”

In the cotton areas, pre-hurricane harvests were commonly reaching two bales to three bales an acre compared to a bale and a half being considered a good year. About 30 percent of the cotton had been harvested prior to the storms.

Early reports from Avoyelles and adjacent parishes are that losses will approach 100 percent, he said. As Lili slashed its way north, the damage lessened. In lower Caldwell, upper Catahoula and Franklin parishes, some of the state’s biggest cotton parishes, losses are expected to be in the 20 to 35 percent range.

Losses in the far northeast, the state’s biggest cotton area, where Lili exited the state, were estimated at 5 to 20 percent. The northwest cotton parishes were virtually untouched.

Several variables figured into the damage, primarily if the cotton had been defoliated. Where defoliation was complete, the wind and rain tore the bolls from the burr. In the worst hit central Louisiana area, several farmers reported at most 100 pounds an acre left to harvest, compared to a normal harvest of 500 pounds to 700 pounds an acre.

Others harvested some test strips and reported that unless they actually walked the rows they couldn’t tell what had been picked and what had not. “There were also some varietal differences, but not so much as to make a lot of difference,” said Odom. “Overall, the greener the cotton and the farther north it was located, the less the damage.

Now, in the days following the hurricane, rain is inundating Louisiana’s eastern cotton region, adding insult to injury. Water-damaged cotton will receive a heavily discounted price for quality.

Second-crop rice was nearing harvest across south Louisiana when the storms hit. Second crop rice was available on 100,000 acres of the 533,000 acres of first crop rice that had already been harvested.

Odom said most rice farmers are still taking care of their residences and immediate family needs and no firm estimate of second-crop rice damage is available. However, rough estimates are, depending on the area, that 30 to 70 percent of the second crop was heavily damaged. With historic low prices being paid for rice, any rice in the 50 to 70 percent damage range will not be harvested and will be declared a total loss.

Louisiana’s pecan crop was also hard hit in the south central parishes where high winds stripped many trees of their pecans. Significant numbers of uprooted and splintered trees were also reported in many pecan orchards.

Louisiana’s soybean crop was nearly 50 percent harvested prior to the storms. The remaining soybeans will also suffer yield losses and quality damage with continuing rains further reducing yield and quality.

About half of Louisiana’s sweet potatoes had been harvested prior to the storms. Saturated fields will prevent potato diggers from getting back in the fields and standing water will further damage the quality of the eventual harvest.

Coastal pastures for grazing livestock sustained major damage in a half-dozen parishes with lesser damage in adjacent parishes. Standing water in pastures will cause a shortage of forage for the next couple of weeks. The shortage will force supplemental feeding of stored hay, which will reduce the inventory normally used for winter feeding.

Additionally, baled hay left outside and unprotected during the storms will suffer quality deterioration. Some will be unusable for livestock.

"This is a bitter pill to swallow for many of our already cash-strapped farmers," Odom said. "My plan is to get USDA Secretary Ann Veneman down here to see how bad it is and to get some aid rolling in as soon as possible."

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