Growers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are tough. They've been through hurricanes before and moved on.
Hurricane Katrina presented bigger threats and bigger problems after it hit August 29, 2005. The Category-Five monster had farmers worried more about their families' lives and their homes than their crops.
From the region's growers to lower Mississippi River grain terminals and the ships and barges that move commodities to them, production and processing fell to a crawl.
And for growers and grain handlers in northern states, Katrina's effect was apparent in slower grain movement due to clogged southern ports.
For farmers and others in the ravaged region, the colossal cleanup chore still continues for many.
Joe Morgan and Van Hensarling, who farm in southern Mississippi south of Hattiesburg, were fortunate that their bumper cotton crops withstood Katrina's wrath, even though they lost close to a half bale of yield to her 150-mph-plus winds and sheets of rain.
“If Katrina would have been a few weeks later, it would have cleaned our cotton out,” says Hensarling, who farms with his sons Jerid and Brad. “It would have been our best crop ever. But Katrina reduced our yields by about 200 lbs./acre.”
Adds Morgan: “What hurt our farming most was probably not being able to enter fields because of tree branches and other debris.” His farm was about 10 miles east of Katrina's eye. His large shop was heavily damaged, but his home survived. More importantly, no family members were injured.
Both growers are exclusively strip-tillers and count on advanced GPS RTK auto-steer systems to help them line up their planters, sprayers and harvesters within sub-inch accuracy.
Located in a region dominated by forestland, both have numerous fields, ranging from two to three acres to 100 or more in size. Each field has a specific GPS coordinate to assure that their Auto-Farm auto-steer systems know exactly where to guide tractors down a row.
GPS helped a lot in harvesting peanuts after Katrina. The growers knew where to line up their diggers in the debris-infested fields. But that was after they were able to get past the hundreds of tons of trees that covered roadways and fields.
They counted on the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to help fund the disaster cleanup and were among many who were served by Ken Barron, a regional FSA coordinator. “Our big issue has been farmers and ranchers with fields covered by debris,” says Barron. “We've been doing a lot with the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) which helps cover debris cleanup.”
Steve Melton of Jackson, MS, head of Mississippi FSA programs, says more than $53.7 million was allocated for Katrina agricultural relief in Mississippi. “Work has been completed and producers have been paid $21,207,759,” he says. “Signup for several new practices began on July 17, and will have an allocation of $20,147,000.”
Many growers who had crop insurance on damaged cotton, corn, soybeans or other crops were eligible for additional hurricane indemnity funding from USDA, says Barron.
Willie Cooper, Louisiana FSA executive director in Alexandria, says most corn, soybeans and rice had been harvested prior to Katrina and the deadly Hurricane Rita that followed in western Louisiana a few weeks later.
“But we had many farmers with cotton losses of about 200 lbs./acre,” he says. “Their yields still exceeded eligibility for crop insurance or the indemnity program.”
Cooper says Louisiana growers have received about $11 million in ECP funding for tree and debris removal, fence repair, salt-water removal and other structure repair. More than $26 million from ECP is allotted for that state. There are also funds for livestock killed, mainly by the Rita storm.
In Alabama, state FSA director Danny Crawford says there was little crop damage from Katrina, Hurricane Dennis in July 2005 and other storms. But there were still several million dollars in federal relief funds paid for debris cleanup, livestock and feed replacement and other storm-related situations.
The river runs freely, for the most part, but not until after ports made remarkable recoveries along the Mississippi as it led to the Gulf of Mexico. Since some 60% of the nation's grain exports funnel through Louisiana ports, the rebound of these handlers of corn, soybeans and countless other commodities was imperative.
The Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, which operates through Louisiana State University and is similar to university land grant Extension services, closely monitored the impact of Katrina and Rita on the vital ports. Ports specialist Justin Farrell says the Port of South Louisiana at LaPlace handles the majority of grain shipped down river for export. It lies midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Fortunately, it escaped major damage from both big storms.
“Port of South Louisiana is absolutely essential to the nation's agricultural exports,” says Farrell. “It had minor hurricane damage, damaged conveyors and power outages. All grain terminals were up and running by mid-September, 2005, and the port was fully operational by October.”
However, damage to other regional ports and regional navigational waterways were felt at the northern end of the Mississippi and rivers that feed into it. Farrell says huge efforts were made to clear the waterways of “thousands of private vessels,” as well as commercial barges and other vessels damaged by Katrina. There were also navigational hazards in the waterways, ranging from trees and other vegetation, to countless pieces of warehouses, homes and other structures annihilated by the storms.
Unimaginable sites, like a ship thrown atop a levee in Plaquemines Parish, LA, where the Mississippi enters the gulf, were seen from a few miles west of New Orleans and on down river. Boxcar containers once ready for loading on barges and shipped to sea were scattered like tinker toys.
Some say it's remarkable that the regular movement of cargo was back to near normal by year's end. The Port of New Orleans, along with St. Bernard and Plaquemines ports, sustained the most damage from Katrina, but was at 70% operational by early year, says Farrell. And this summer, grain export traffic down river was 36% greater than the same time in 2005, says Kevin McNew of Cash Grain Bids, which monitors grain movement and basis along the river and inland.
“At the same time, unshipped corn exports are 59% higher than last year, and unshipped soybean exports are 46% higher,” says McNew. “All of this sold, but untransported grain needs to move out of the Midwest to an export market. This is putting considerable pressure on the transportation sector.”
Barge costs increased after Katrina, jumping from 44¢/bu. to 90¢ along the Illinois River. McNew says that despite the strong movement of grain, barge rates remain about 30¢ above normal along the upper Mississippi.
The time period just after the hurricanes through this summer illustrates how the Corn Belt and other parts of the nation depend so heavily on Louisiana ports, and vice versa, says Farrell.
Ed Usset, University of Minnesota Extension economist, says that even though grain is moving freely down river, “we're still trying to work our way through piles of grain that built up” after Katrina.
“We blamed a lot of things on Katrina last fall,” he says. “We like to think it created the dire (grain price) basis situation we are in now. But I remind producers that we were in a tough spot before Katrina.
“Katrina just kicked us while we were down and made it worse in a shorter term. The die was cast for this poor basis and we've never recovered from it.”
The immediate northern impact of Katrina was felt in the 2005 harvest. “It was tremendous,” says Usset. “It created a crisis mode for a lot of producers moving the previous year's crop after holding off on marketing it in 2004. They had to move it and couldn't move it.” Minnesota still has some piles on the ground yet to be moved.
“My dad was farming when (Hurricane) Camille hit over 30 years ago,” says Hensarling. “He says Katrina was much worse. We're just fortunate that we didn't lose any of our family members in the storm.”
ARS Southern Regional Research Center Finally Reopens
Ed Cleveland heads a project vital to corn and cotton producers nationwide. His research team works to control the deadly aflatoxin moldy fungus. Ironically, for nearly 10 months he was kept from entering his New Orleans-based laboratory due to a massive mold cleanup and repair of the damaged facilities spawned by the flood-of-all-floods caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Cleveland's program is part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC), located since the 1940s only a few hundred yards from Lake Ponchartrain.
When high waters broke the controversial levees on canals leading from the lake, SRRC was helpless. Fortunately, most of its labs were above the 5 ft. of water that filled the basement. But with floors, walls and ceilings of the basement smothered in mold, not to mention the massive cleanup involving damaged equipment and utilities in the basement, Cleveland and other scientists could return to their offices and laboratory until late June.
SRRC's reopening has helped pick up the region. “We're like a beacon for this part of the city,” says Cleveland.
But while Katrina kept SRRC labs inoperable for much of a year, its research on aflatoxin, cotton fiber quality and many other areas important to southern ag production was up and running within a month after the storm.
“After we made sure everyone was accounted for, we relocated our scientists and staff to laboratories of cooperating ARS and university researchers who generously offered us laboratory space,” says Cleveland.
“We transferred about half of our lab to LSU in Baton Rouge (about 20% of SRRC's 200 permanent staffers moved temporarily to LSU). We also collaborated with ARS at Stoneville, MS, our Beltsvile, MD, Agricultural Research Center and with the Institute for Genomics Research in Rockville, MD, where they have genomics labs to work with the (aflatoxin) fungus.”
SRRC stationed employees as far away as Albany, GA. Research on aflatoxin genes was also done at Cornell University.
In addition, much cotton fiber quality research was moved to Clemson University in South Carolina and to Russell Research Center in Athens, GA.
“Our department didn't really slow down much at all,” says Cleveland. “Within three weeks we had it pretty well ironed out where we would go.”
“About three-fourths of the center is back up and most labs are open. It's miraculous when you think about it and when you look at the neighborhood less than a mile from here.”