BATON ROUGE, La. -- Kurt Guidry says 2005 was already shaping up to be less than a banner year for Louisiana agriculture when two of the biggest hurricanes in history struck the state within a month of each other.

“We had drought and drought-type conditions prior to the storms that eventually led to most of the state being declared a disaster area,” said Guidry, an economist with the LSU AgCenter. “We had increased production costs and, for many of our commodities, we had either stagnant or lower prices.

“For those commodities that had stagnant prices, when you factor in the higher production costs, we had concerns about financial difficulties in some parts of our agricultural sector even before Hurricane Katrina. What Katrina and Rita did was make a very difficult situation even worse.”

Between them, it now appears Katrina and Rita cost Louisiana agricultural producers $1.59 billion in lost income and investments, Guidry told participants in the 2006 AgOutlook Conference in Baton Rouge. That’s out of a total gross farm gate value of $5.04 billion in 2004.

And the two storms may have also helped set the stage for even more problems for Louisiana producers in 2006.

As might be expected, timber and row crops took the brunt of Katrina and Rita’s winds, rains and storm surges. LSU AgCenter economists estimate the losses to the timber industry at $839.93 million and row crops at $357.85 million.

But producers of other enterprises also took a beating. Losses to the nursery/fruits/vegetable segment were put at $45.5 million; livestock and forage, $75.95 million; aquaculture, $58.33 million, and fisheries/wildlife at $217.08 million.

The state also sustained another $100 million in losses to direct agricultural production facilities, he noted.

“On the flip side, the one positive thing from 2005 was that, despite all the production difficulties we had, for many of our commodities that were harvested prior to the storm we did experience relatively good yields. That was one of the few bright spots.”

Louisiana’s sugar cane yields were down somewhat, but the per acre averages for corn, cotton and soybeans were up slightly and the rice and grain sorghum harvests were much better than expected.

But those higher yields were tempered by growers having to spend an average of 34.71 percent more for diesel fuel in 2005 compared to 2004. The 2005 price was up 61.36 percent from the five-year average.

Farmers also had to pay an average of $61 per ton more for urea ($330 in 2005 vs. $269 in 2004), $59 more per ton for potash ($258 vs. $189) and $31 more per ton for phosphate ($296 vs. $265). The increases ranged from 11.7 percent for phosphate to 22.68 percent for urea to 36.51 percent for of potash.

Row crop prices to the farmer, meanwhile, fell from an average of $2.47 in 2004 to $1.96 per bushel for corn; 54 cents to 43 cents per pound for cotton; $8.43 to $7.03 per hundredweight for rice; $4.13 to $3.21 for grain sorghum; and $7.56 to $5.94 for soybeans.

The different paths taken by the storms increased losses because of the diversity of the state’s crops and the way they’re dispersed around the state.

“We have more than 30 plant commodities that are produced and more than 30 vegetable crops,” says Guidry. “We have a beef cattle industry, a horse industry, dairy industry, a growing poultry industry. And, obviously because of where we’re located, we have large aquaculture and fisheries sectors.”

Much of Louisiana’s agricultural production is located in the southern portion of the state, where Katrina came through east of New Orleans in late August and Rita along the western border of Louisiana with Texas in late September.

The Southwest region, where Rita hit, has a little over 30 percent of the state’s row crops acres and 28 percent of its cattle numbers. The South Central, Crescent and Southeast regions, which bore the brunt of Katrina, have about 30 percent of the cattle and almost 20 percent of the row crop acres.

“I’ve been here since 1997, and, unfortunately, I’ve been involved in estimating damages for many of those years — either from too much rain or not enough rain,” said Guidry. “Katrina and Rita created a unique situation because of the number of commodities that were impacted.

“We have both current and future implications from these storms,” he said. “The saltwater flooding that we had on a lot of our acres could give us some future production problems, and then we had impacts beyond production. We had increases in costs of production from having to replant or difficulty in harvesting things.”

Farmers suffered losses in production and quality. In some cases, they also lost markets. “Many of our vegetable producers in southeast Louisiana look to New Orleans as their market,” said Guidry. “Obviously, with the devastation we had in New Orleans, a big part of their market is gone.”

In terms of row crops, sugar cane was, by far, the most affected by the hurricanes, losing about 24 percent of production, based on estimates by parish Extension agents.

“But the production loss is only a small part of the problem that sugar cane producers are having to face,” he noted. “We lost cane that had been planted just prior to the hurricanes coming that had to be replanted.

“We had quite a few acres that were unharvestable because of trash and other debris that was in those fields. We had some stubble acres that we feel like we’re going to lose as we move into 2006 because of salt water being on those fields for a considerable amount of time. And we had over 37,000 flooded acres.”

AgCenter Extension agents and economists estimate the state suffered a loss on cotton of about 17 percent, mostly from lint being blown off the stalk by winds from the hurricanes.

“Thankfully, most of our main rice crop was harvested, but we had about 58,000 acres of second crop that were still out there,” said Guidry. “From that we had from 15,000 to 20,000 acres that were left to be harvested after the hurricanes.

For sugar cane, the economists estimate the hurricanes had an economic impact of $286.5 million or 94.69 percent of the crop’s farm gate value of $302.6 million in 2004. For cotton, the impact reached $48.8 million or 18.17 percent of 2004’s $268.6 million; rice, $12.2 million or 4.91 percent of 2004’s $249.2 million; and soybeans, $5.1 million or 2.33 percent of $219.3 million.

e-mail: flaws@prismb2b.com