CRAVEN COUNTY, N.C. — Before Hurricane Irene smacked his tender tobacco plants sideways, David Parker was headed for a terrific crop, maybe his best in 32 years of farming.
Now, as Parker rushes to save a few acres of shredded leaves before they rot on the dying stalks, the math looks different.
“I’ve never had a year I didn’t make money farming, but I think this will be the one that gets us there,” he said Wednesday, driving up a dirt road between a beaten-down cotton field and a 17-acre patch of dejected-looking tobacco.
The green-gold tobacco leaves — which normally this time of year would be spread wide, waiting to be plucked, dried at a careful pace and taken to market — were hanging straight down, shriveled, with the stalks leaning the way that the wind had pushed them.
That’s what this agricultural disaster looks like: wilted leaves, angled stalks, a tangle of cotton plants with fat bolls that had looked unusually promising but now might not open. Subtle stuff to everyone but the hundreds of farmers who, like Brown, now face what may be their worst losses ever.
“That’s not vacation cottages. It’s these people’s whole way of making a living, and the impact will spread throughout all the people and businesses that rely on farmers,” said Graham Boyd, executive vice president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina.
“It’s a tragedy, just terrible, terrible stuff.”
State and federal officials say it will be at least weeks before the full extent of the farm losses are known, but the effect on tobacco, which is grown in much of the area where the storm punched hardest, is extensive.
“Most of the counties I cover, pretty much any tobacco still in the field is going to be close to a 100 percent loss,” said Dianne Farrer, a regional agronomist for the state who works in more than a dozen eastern counties, including some of the state’s biggest tobacco producers.
“I’ve talked to several growers, and they’re just disheartened,” she said. “If it’s leaned over or knocked over, they can’t harvest mechanically, and if they don’t get in and harvest what’s left by hand, by the end of the week it will be lost.”
Many cotton growers — often farmers who are also growing tobacco — could also take big hits. However, it will take awhile for them to be able to tell how badly the plants were damaged, unlike the tobacco that’s knocked over and tattered, Farrer said.
Farmers can get federally backed crop insurance, and many are covered for losses of 70 percent or 75 percent of their harvest last year, Boyd said. Most, though, expected a bigger crop at better prices this year, so the gap between real losses and the insurance payments could be huge.
It’s only designed as a safety net to help farmers pay the bills they piled up planting a year’s crops, not cover their expected profits, he said.
Farm crews usually make about four harvest-time passes through tobacco fields. First, they take the lowest leaves, which ripen first, then work their way up as the leaves turn gold, taking a few leaves with each round. The later rounds are the most valuable.
This year, drought had slowed the harvest. When the storm hit, many — including Parker —had done only one full round and part of the second. The real money was left vulnerable on the stalks.
Some of Parker’s friends were calling around Wednesday, sharing what they had heard from their insurance adjusters. Parker’s told him to send his crew out in the fields to straighten up the stalks and pack the soil down around their roots so they will stay upright and recover.
That works if plants are pushed over by an early-season storm while they’re still growing. But it’s a waste of time and labor this late in the season, Boyd said.
“That’s throwing good money after bad,” he said. “And if they order them to go out and harvest this stuff, a lot of it is going to be such poor quality they won’t get anything for it anyway.”
Parker told the adjuster it made no sense to dump $100 or $200 an acre pushing the plants up but that he’d do his best to harvest whatever might be salvageable.
He and his son, Josh, spent much of Wednesday morning shoulder to shoulder with their crew of about a dozen workers, yanking freshly cured tobacco that had been harvested before the storm out of a metal curing barn, then filling the barn with the first of the salvaged leaves to cure. In a few days, they’ll know how it turned out.
After the barn was loaded, Parker took a visitor on a ride to look at the battered tobacco and cotton fields across the highway from the barns. They were part of the collection of several small fields he farms that add up to 100 acres of tobacco — the real money-maker — plus 180 of cotton and 300 of corn that was badly stunted by drought.
These crops have to support Parker, his wife, a daughter in college, Josh, their work crew and, to a degree, the land owners he rents from, Parker’s propane supplier, the people at the transfer station where he takes the tobacco and everyone else he does business with.
The storm had been gone for three days, but the fields were still so muddy that his pickup quickly sank in up to the rear axle. He shook his head and climbed out: one more problem in a week of nothing but.
“It was the kind of crop you hope for, a real vintage year,” he said walking along, not even glancing at the battered plants on either side. “My experience of farming is you never get there, though. It gets pulled out from under you somewhere along the line.”