U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns made a brief stop at a storm-damaged farm in Calcasieu Parish Oct. 5 to learn how Hurricane Rita devastated the region's agriculture.

More than 60 people, mostly area public officials, met with Johanns at the Johnny Hensgens farm — where winds blew apart metal buildings, damaged the family home and stripped trees of their leaves.

“A way of life has been lost,” Lake Charles, La., Mayor Randy Roach told Johanns, describing the impact on Cameron Parish farmers.

One of those farmers, Billy Doland of Grand Chenier, La., told Johanns he has been able to recover 30 cattle out of a herd of 500. Doland, who went through Hurricane Audrey in 1957, said he needs help with fencing, and he suggested a temporary waiver of stock laws.

Roach said agriculture is one of the driving economic forces in southwest Louisiana, and damage to agriculture causes injury to area communities.

Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Bob Odom said many cattle in Cameron Parish are scattered. Some have been recovered, but others are stranded in the marsh, he said.

Many of the older cattle producers won't start over, Odom said, and he's worried that some auction barns will be forced to close.

Kent Ledoux, representing the Gray Ranch of Vinton, La., said more cattle are being brought out of the marsh, but feeding them is a problem. The only pastures in the area for many farmers have been contaminated with salt water, he said.

“How do you help farmers who have lost their entire herds?” he asked Johanns.

Hal McMillan, Calcasieu Parish Police Jury president, said the storm also has damaged the sport hunting and fishing business.

The Port of Lake Charles has been damaged heavily, according to the facility's director, Adam McBride. The port is vital to area farmers for exporting food overseas under the federal PL480 program, he said.

“We look to you as an advocate for us,” McBride told the secretary, urging him to plead the region's case to the Bush administration.

State Sen. Jerry Theunissen of Jennings, La., said the state has lost a third of its economy, and federal assistance is needed.

“We don't need more loans. We need loan forgiveness,” Theunissen said.

Odom agreed and said many farmers will be out of business if they have to start over in debt.

Willie Danos, a Calcasieu Parish sugarcane farmer, said he met with other cane farmers recently, and the outlook is not optimistic.

“There were not a lot of farmers who wanted to continue, and I've never seen that,” Danos said.

David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research, and Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for Extension, also took part in the meeting.

“The biggest thing is the breadth of the damaged area and the effects on the agricultural community,” Boethel said. “It's rare you find so many individuals affected. Our leading commodities have really been hammered.”

According to an LSU AgCenter report, damage to Louisiana agriculture from hurricanes Rita and Katrina exceed $1.5 billion.

Boethel said most producers were having problems before the hurricanes. “This just compounds that,” he said.

Coreil said the extent of damage to Louisiana agriculture is unprecedented, and new streamlined programs are needed to get the state back on its feet.

“We have never had a challenge like this in this state,” Coreil said. “It's going to have to be a major federal involvement.”