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Farmers helpless as crops face peril from Florence

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Most tobacco still waiting to be harvested in Pitt County likely will die in the field as a result of flooding from Hurricane Florence, county farmer Lawrence Davenport said Thursday as the first signs of the storm approached.

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By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Friday, September 14, 2018

Pitt County famer Lawrence Davenport picked corn every day this week from sunup until midnight, trying to salvage as much of his crop as possible before Hurricane Florence reached the county. His tobacco and soybean crops will likely suffer a more disastrous fate.

‘We picked all the corn we can pick; the rest will go into the ground,” Davenport said.

Davenport spends endless hours year-round planning his production, studying market projections, soil conditions and other factors that influence his farming decisions. He cannot predict the weather, though, and its influence on all of his plans.

Success and failure generally hinge on rainfall. As Davenport said in the spring when it looked like the county was entering a dry spell: “It’s either too dry or too wet; not enough rain or too much rain. That’s farming.”

For Davenport and his eastern North Carolina farming brethren, concerns about that spring dry spell are a pleasant memory right about now.

Thursday’s National Weather Service forecast through the weekend predicted from 6-12 inches of rain will fall in Pitt through Saturday, with showers and thunderstorms possible through next week. At the same time, rivers, lakes and creeks will overflow from a combination of at least three days of tropical rains and storm surges from Florence’s winds that will push rivers from the coast back inland, NWS forecasters said.

The weather nightmare will only worsen when the storm finally passes. That is when rivers upstream will flow into the already saturated coastal plain, likely overflowing their banks in Pitt and all other coastal counties in the east, they said.  

Davenport remembers Hurricane Floyd and the devastation it wreaked on farmers.

“It could very well be as bad now,” he said. “It would be a disaster.” 

The current shallow conditions of the Tar River, caused by sediment and debris buildup over decades, multiply the dangers of Florence’s rains, Davenport said.

“Forty years ago, I measured the depth of the river at 24 feet in front of my house,” he said. “About a month ago, I measured the same spot at 16 feet. It hasn’t been dredged — or even snagged for debris — in something like 50 years. That tells me that storm-washed sediment from Rocky Mount and Tarboro has filled the river up and down. Back up toward Falkland, soybeans are growing on sand bars in the river.”

Davenport said he surveyed his crops and decided it was futile to focus his energy on harvesting his tobacco crop. He could not simply pick all his tobacco at once because it has to be dried in barns.

“We don’t have enough barns for all of it at once; you have to work through a 10-week period, and there’s nothing you can do when the barns are full,” Davenport said. “We thought about emptying what’s in the barns now and refilling them, but decided that if we did that, we’d probably lose (what we put in) in the barn. If the electricity goes off, you’re in a world of hurt. We don’t have enough generators for all the tobacco barns at once, and when that happens, it just rots in the barn, and that’s a disaster. It’s cheaper to let it rot in the field than in the barns”

He estimated he’d lose about eight barnloads in the field.

Davenport has about 1,000 acres of soybeans growing now, awaiting whatever Florence decides to do with it.

“I don’t what’ll happen to them,” he said. “It depends on how bad this gets. Hopefully, in about three weeks we’ll be able to start repairing the damage

Davenport knows he’s just one of many farmers who will face the same conditions.

“It’s the same all around,” he said. “And then there’s cotton. Nobody’s picked any cotton, and if it blows down, the machines can’t pick it. It won’t line up.”

Davenport generally is known as an optimistic person — ”You’d better be if you’re a farmer,” he has said many times. He  thought he had seen it all and weathered the toughest of times, but could not compare anything in his past to current farming conditions, culminating with Florence.

“You know I hate to be negative, but this is as rough a time for agriculture as I’ve ever seen it, and that’s before this storm” he said. “Prices are down on everything, tobacco companies aren’t eager to buy this tobacco. Corn prices, wheat prices, soybean prices, peanut prices; everything is down. We were going to have a tough year even without this storm.”

Preparing for storms and hurricanes takes a lot of time and is expensive, Davenport said.

“But that’s not the bad part,” he said. “The cleanup is the terrible part. I dread the cleanup. I can weather the storm, but that cleanup is awful. The effects of soil loss will be tremendous, even with crops planted in the ground. You just can’t prevent it when you get 10 or 12 inches of rain. 

“But hey, that’s farming,” he said. “Been through it before. Some will survive and some won’t. That’s the way it is.”

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.

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