Farmers recover from Irene

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, August 30, 2011

For farmers across Suffolk, Hurricane Irene was a mixed blessing.

Growers had been yearning for rain all summer long, but Irene was a bit more than they bargained for.

“We needed some rain, but we didn’t need all that wind,” local farmer Shelley Barlow said.

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But the concerns for farmers during hurricanes don’t just stem from the wind’s effects on crops. They also have to worry about flooding, damage to buildings and equipment and diseases bred by excessive moisture.

In a press conference with Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack encouraged growers who suffered losses to contact their insurance agents and Farm Service Agency offices as soon as possible.

“We have to be concerned about the impact this storm has had on growers and producers throughout the region,” he said.

Barlow, who grows cotton, soybeans and more with her husband, Joseph, at their farm on Cherry Grove Road, said it’s hard to tell at this point how much loss the crops suffered.

“Everything is just really twisted up and laid over,” she said. “It looks pretty beat up. It will be hard to tell if we have any actual loss until we go to harvest it.”

The cotton itself should still be fine because the boll was just starting to open, Barlow said. The challenge at this point will be harvesting it without running over it.

At Clay Hill Farms near Whaleyville, Edmond Morris grows a variety of fruits and vegetables for a community-supported agriculture program and also leases land to other farmers who grow row crops like corn, cotton, soybeans and peanuts.

He estimates the farm lost about three-quarters of its late watermelons and cantaloupes, and about one-quarter of its late butterbeans.

“If the soil dries out to allow for a timely harvest, we should harvest about 75 percent of the pre-storm yield of butterbeans,” he said.

It’s a little too early to assess the condition of the sweet potatoes, he added.

As for the row crops, it appears much of the corn is lost, he said.

“The corn will suffer the greatest loss,” he said. “That’s due to the harvesting problems from the beaten-down stalks.”

Barlow said she was glad they decided against growing corn this year.

“The corn is still there, but you can’t harvest it,” she said of the effects of a hurricane.

Peanuts and soybeans likely will benefit most from the rainfall, Morris said. The deluge measured nearly a foot in Suffolk in about 24 hours.

Both farmers were pleased to find none of their buildings had sustained any damage. But Morris was worried about crop diseases.

“If the plants aren’t allowed to dry out within a reasonable amount of time, it can cause a good environment for those diseases to thrive,” Morris said. “At this point, we don’t know how plant diseases brought on by excessive moisture will play into that.”

Despite the damage to crops, both farmers agreed it could have been worse.

“I’ve seen it much worse,” Morris said.

“It could have been many, many, many times worse,” Barlow added.