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Floods To Cost Western NC Farmers Millions

10:26 AM, Jul 9, 2013   |    comments
Kirby Johnson, of Flavor 1st in Henderson County, stands in his flooded cornfield Monday. After recent rains, the 380-acre field has only about 40 acres spared from the flooding. / Dillon Deaton/ddeaton1@citizen-times.com
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Mills River, NC (ACT) -- As flood waters recede, growers are getting a clear picture of damage to crops - and it's likely to cost them millions of dollars.

"We do a lot of sweet corn, and out of 380 acres, water is still over a lot of it. We may have 40 acres left," said Kirby Johnson, of Flavor 1st in Henderson County, which supplies supermarket chains with corn and other vegetables.

"It's just catastrophic," Johnson said. "I'm 53, and I've never seen anything like this."

The farm recorded 10.7 inches of rain in a one-week period ending Monday. Production typically yields about 200,000 boxes of corn, but the swamped fields will knock that down to about 50,000, translating to a loss of $1 million-$1.5 million.

In the Cane Creek area of southern Buncombe, dairy farmer Tony Nesbitt said he's looking at a 35-40 percent loss of his corn crop, which means $125,000-$130,000 in lost revenues. He has some insurance, but it doesn't kick in until the losses pass 50 percent.

Of his 350 acres of silage corn, he expects to lose about 130 acres.

"If (the plants) are big enough and they don't stand too long in the water, it won't hurt it," Nesbitt said. "But if it stands too long - some of my crop has already shriveled up like it's not had rain in three months, and that's all because of too much water."

As of Monday, Asheville Regional Airport had recorded 46.53 inches of rain for the year, 22.63 inches above normal. Much of last week's rainfall remains standing in low-lying corn fields.

Johnson said the standing water in his fields in and around Mills River will cause the corn plants to stop growing and die.

"They'll never make a cob or do anything," he said.

He's been fortunate with his tomatoes, some 250 acres his operation planted, mostly on slightly elevated terrain. He knows a lot of tomato growers aren't as lucky, though, because low-lying tomato fields also are swamped.

The rains are even causing problems for apple growers and cattle farmers.

Silage corn growers can't replant at this late date, and farmers with large hay fields can't get in the fields to cut because they're just too boggy, said Ethan Henderson, area livestock agent with the Buncombe County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.

"We need a few good days of dry, sunny weather to allow them to mow and bale it," Henderson said.

The July deluge - 8.44 inches so far - creates a different set of problems for Henderson County Apple grower Kenny Barnwell.

"If we don't get some warm, dry weather, they're going to be big and pretty, but they're not going to taste good," Barnwell said. Excessive rains tend to dilute apples' sugar content.

"It's plenty early enough for us to get some warm, dry weather so we can get back to where we want to be," he said.

The biggest problem Barnwell has is wet conditions have made farming even more expensive. Humid, damp weather allows fungal diseases and pests to flourish, so growers have to spray the crops much more often.

"In a normal year, you're at 11 times," Barnwell said. "I'm at 13 already this year and still going."

Barnwell grows about 150 acres of apples, and each spraying runs "in excess of $5,000.

"If I keep it under $175,000 for the year, I'm going to be lucky," Barnwell said. "And I had budgeted about $110,000."

Johnson said he's particularly worried about blight setting in on tomatoes now, and he knows he'll have to be diligent about scouting for it.

Like Johnson, Nesbitt knows the parts of the corn crop that are underwater are lost, and it's too late to replant. He keeps about 350 dairy cows, and he'll probably have to buy ground corn to make up the difference.

"The only thing I can do now is plant winter grain - wheat or rye - and harvest that in the spring before we do our corn," Nesbitt said.

Written By: John Boyle, Asheville Citizen-Times

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