It turns out Mother Nature throws a mean jab and crunching right cross. If this growing season in Louisiana were a prizefight, the referee would have stopped the contest due to a one-sided beating. And the hits to the state's agriculture just keep coming.
Due to wet weather and its consequences, experts with the LSU AgCenter now say that estimated total losses for farmers this year stand at $450 million-plus and counting.
“Many Louisiana farmers are experiencing one of the worst harvest seasons ever,” says Bill Richardson, LSU AgCenter chancellor. “The two back-to-back hurricanes caused some severe damage, and this bad situation has been made worse by unceasing post-hurricane rain.”
Not surprisingly, how much worse the situation gets depends on the weather.
“For cotton, soybeans and rice, the optimal harvest time has passed — causing serious quality and yield damage, and for sugarcane, the longer the harvest window is expanded the more damage can be expected,” says Kurt Guidry, LSU AgCenter economist.
“A continuation of rain across the state undoubtedly will cause crops on much of the remaining unharvested acreage to be left in the field, which would, of course, increase these damage estimates.”
Farmers are suffering all over the state.
“I'm telling you, it's difficult for producers to even drive around looking at this mess,” says Randy Machovec, a consultant with Pest Management Enterprises in Cheneyville (just south of Alexandria). “The state is just devastated, and the situation is depressing.”
Machovec and colleagues picked some test plots on Nov. 13 that yielded about 100 pounds per acre. Without the huge rains the state has experienced, the plots would have yielded between 1,000 pounds and 1,200 pounds.
“Normally, it wouldn't have been worth picking. We had to get them out, though, because they were test plots,” says Machovec.
While unsure of exact numbers, Machovec suspects the loss of cotton yields in central Louisiana is at least 50 percent.
“I may even be optimistic with that percentage. Cotton that was picked before the storms was great. But everything afterwards has been terrible,” he says.
And the rain won't let up.
“We've been clear for about five days now. But weathermen are calling for another substantial rain tomorrow (Nov. 15). Many fields are still wet — especially on the backside lands. There's been a north wind blowing, which has helped dry things out a bit. But any progress we've made will be lost with the forecasted rain,” says Machovec.
LSU AgCenter estimates the state's crops have sustained the following damage: $338 million in sugarcane; $52 million in cotton; $42 million in soybeans; $25 million in sweet potatoes; $9 million in rice; and nearly $3 million in hay and forage crops.
At least 11 Louisiana parishes have damages over $10 million. As of mid-October, Vermilion Parish had nearly $25.9 million in agricultural damage. Other parishes have suffered thusly: $22.9 million in damage in Avoyelles Parish; $21.9 million in St. Martin; $20.3 million in Lafourche; $17.4 million in St. Landry; $17.3 million in Assumption; $17.2 million in Iberville; $14.9 million in Pointe Coupee; $13.6 million in Lafayette; $12.7 million in Iberia; and $12.3 million in St. Mary.
Economists say the numbers have likely worsened since they were first crunched last month.
Louisiana Extension reports that sugarcane has been especially ravaged. Sugarcane production and processing meant nearly $620 million to Louisiana last year. As much as half its value could be lost this year.
Machovec says cane in his area is being harvested, but reports are that sugar content is down between 40 and 50 pounds per ton.
“That's bad. Many averages are around 150 pounds. We want to come in around 200 pounds. Tonnage is actually up, but because of the weather, sugar content has fallen off big time,” he says.
“All of this is having a disastrous effect on the Louisiana economy,” says Richardson. “The losses definitely will touch more than farmers.
“Cotton gins, rice mills, grain elevators and sugarcane mills may not have quite as much to process — which means the owners and their employees may not make as much money and won't have as much to spend. And there also won't be as much to export, which means there won't be as much money flowing into our state's economy from the outside.”
Machovec agrees. “Look, this will hurt everyone in the state. Everything is affected. An easy example is that cottonseed is gone. That means farmers are have to come up with more dollars and there's going to be less to alleviate input costs. The quality of cotton is also gone so docking is happening. Less money in a farmer's pocket is less money to be spent at the hardware store or on groceries.”
Machovec has clients who didn't even pick their cotton. Following the storms, the fields were unreachable by harvesting equipment, and much of the yield was on the ground or blown away.
“One client had a shot of defoliant on a mid-maturing variety, and we were hoping to beat the storms. But 15 to 20 inches of rain later and it's pointless. We're at the beck and call of weather systems and there's nothing left to do,” he says.
“This area took a direct hit. We grow a diverse set of crops here and usually that helps balance disasters out — but not in this case. I'm worried about what this means for cotton next year. Even with the new farm bill, cotton has been smacked two years in a row and growers are getting a little gun shy.”
Editor's note: Some information for this article was provided by the LSU AgCenter.