NC Gov. Roy Cooper tours damaged farm near Faison
Hurricane Florence devastated farmers and farming communities in Eastern North Carolina, but it shouldn’t have much effect on the price or availability of the turkey or ham at the center of your Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
The side dishes may be another matter.
The storm, which made landfall on Sept. 14 and dropped record amounts of rain as it slowly moved inland, caused more than $1.1 billion in agricultural damage in North Carolina, according to state officials. That included killing about 5,500 hogs and an estimated 4.1 million chickens and turkeys.
But the animal losses are small compared to the 9 million hogs and 32.5 million turkeys being raised in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And while North Carolina ranks second in turkey production nationwide, after Minnesota, it still accounts for less than 14 percent of national production, meaning other states can take up any slack in supply.
“There’s plenty of turkeys available this year. Florence didn’t impact turkey that much during the floods that we had,” Bob Ford of the N.C. Poultry Federation said in a phone interview. “Plenty of them out there. Just go by and look at the meat counters, and they’re loaded.”
Where Hurricane Florence did the most harm to farmers was in their fields, where wind and heavy rains did an estimated $987 million in damage to crops such as soybeans, cotton and tobacco. That same wind and drenching rain also ruined many vegetable crops, which could mean shortages of certain types of local produce this holiday season.
Take collards. They took such a beating that many farmers had to start over after the storm. And while bunches of collard leaves have arrived at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, there are no whole-head collards available yet because they’re just not ready, said Tonda Claborn of Debra Lee’s Produce in Newton Grove.
“That’s a big seller for us, a thing that we won’t have,” Claborn said this week at the farmers market. “It’s going to be Christmas before we have what we normally have at Thanksgiving.”
And while there should be plenty of local collard leaves available, you’ll pay a little more for them, said Tammy Woodall of Tart Farms in Johnston County. Woodall said bundles that were going for $1.25 to $1.69 a pound are now selling for as much as $1.99 a pound.
Woodall doesn’t think the higher price will hurt sales.
“It’s kind of like gas,” she said. “You’ve got to have it. A few cents isn’t going to stop you from buying it.”
Woodall and Claborn said other types of fall and winter vegetables will be missing from the farmers market for a while, including cabbages, rutabagas and turnips with the greens on.
But for now, there are plenty of sweet potatoes at the farmers market and elsewhere. Woodall thinks many farmers were able to get their early crop harvested before the storm hit, but much of what was still in the field when the flooding rains came was lost. That means while there may be sweet potatoes now, they won’t be available through the spring the way they normally are, Claborn said.
“We’ll probably be out by February,” she said.
Sweet potatoes, which don’t like being submerged in water, were among the crops hit hardest by Florence. North Carolina is the leading sweet potato growing state in the country, producing a crop worth $346.5 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state agriculture department estimates the losses to this year’s crop due to the hurricane at more than $180 million.
By contrast, the state Department of Agriculture estimates the combined losses for livestock, poultry and aquaculture at just $23.1 million. And when it comes to Thanksgiving turkeys, producers build up inventories over the summer months in anticipation of their busiest season.
“They always start building up supplies in the freezers to handle demand for Thanksgiving,” Kim Decker, a poultry marketing specialists for the state agriculture department, said in a phone interview. “And a lot of that had already taken place before the storm hit.”
Same goes for ham producers, said Andy Curliss, CEO of the N.C. Pork Council. And this year, he said, ham prices are actually lower than recent years because of the 20 percent tariffs Mexico placed on U.S. pork imports this summer in retaliation for the Trump administration’s tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum.
Mexico is a big market for hams from the U.S., and to stay competitive producers have reduced wholesale prices across the board, Curliss said by phone.
“People should see a little better price on their ham this year,” he said.
Another holiday staple that was affected by the hurricane is pecans. Most of North Carolina’s commercial growers are in the eastern part of the state hit hardest by the storm. Like sweet potatoes, there should be a decent supply for the holidays, state officials say, but they’ll run out sooner.
“There are fewer pecans available this season, but we are fortunate that we do not have the tree loss that we experienced with Hurricane Matthew in 2016,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a statement Friday. “Pecan growers are still harvesting and will have crop available for the holiday season.”