Louisiana Farm Losses Likely Heavy In Katrina’s Aftermath

Sugarcane, beef cattle, dairy and citrus and nursery crops bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath. Michael Danna

Published on: Sep 1, 2005

Sugarcane, beef cattle, dairy and citrus and nursery crops bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath and state ag officials in Louisiana are now beginning the daunting task of assessing losses.

South Louisiana sugarcane in Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche and Iberville Parishes was flattened by Katrina’s powerful winds.  The crop is just 25 days from harvest and producers had planned to spend this week applying the final ripening agent to the cane.

Instead, they wade through flattened fields they hope will begin to stand themselves back up given a few days of sunshine. 

"Many farmers are still reeling economically from Hurricane Lili three years ago and this isn’t going to help," says Gene Adolph, a sugar producer with 450 acres in Napoleanville in Assumption Parish.  "We’re unclear how this will affect the start date of grinding season, but it will definitely be a setback for a lot of producers."

Gene Adolph surveys his downed sugarcane crop following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.  Across much of coastal Louisiana sugarcane lay flat, having been blown over by Katrina’s 155 mph winds.  Photo by Michael Danna.

Adolph’s cane, which stood about 14 feet high prior to the storm, was pushed over.  However, he says his early surveys indicated the root structure of the cane remained in tact.

"We only got about 3 inches of rain with the storm and it wasn’t enough to soak the ground where the cane was uprooted when it was blown over," Adolph continued.  "That’s about the best thing I can say about it."

Citrus groves in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana’s furthest most coastal parish, were inundated by storm surge.  The trees now stand in nearly eight feet of salt water that’s certain to lay waste to the crop.  The parish produces $5 million annually in citrus.

In Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, just 15 miles south of New Orleans, cattle roam belly deep in water.  State ag officials says hundreds of head are stranded, surrounded by salt water and running out of things to eat.  Assistant State Veterinarian Martha Littlefield says her agency is organizing the shipment of cattle out of the area, while contemplating what to do with the many dead animals that will start to decompose.

"Right now we’re working with assessment teams to find out what’s going on inside New Orleans and the surrounding parishes," Littlefield says.  "The animals still alive in those outlying areas are hardy and we’re trying to get them some hay.

"But what we’re really more concerned with is cattle deaths and the impact on the people in that area," Littlefield continued.  "We want to minimize that as much as possible."

Dairyman Eugene Robertson has seen his fair share of storms in 30 years at his farm in St. Helena Parish, including Hurricane Camille.  Katrina leveled two sheds, one of which housed Holsteins only 30 minutes before the wind gusts hit. Robertson says his fortune is tied to New Orleans, the No. 1 destination for milk from most Florida parish dairy producers.

"It looks like the milk silos are full in the Southeast area," Robertson says.  "Many of these are still out of power.  It looks like we’re going to have to dump a lot of milk. 

"It may be 20,000 pounds a day for the next five days," he continued.  "That’s 100,000 pounds at $15 a hundredweight.  We’re going to start losing $15,000 a week and those New Orleans markets aren’t going to open up any time soon."

As the state moves to the height of harvest farmers across Louisiana are beginning to express concerns that a shortage of diesel fuel will gravely impact their ability to harvest their crops.

"Farmers know that preservation of life must come first," says Ronnie Anderson, president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation.  "Farmers are finding that diesel suppliers aren’t taking calls and others have been told that there’s no diesel available in some areas."

Across South Louisiana fuel usage for hospitals, relief shelters, emergency vehicles and rescue aircraft has been given top priority.  Farmers across the stricken areas found empty gas pumps and diesel suppliers’ telephones going unanswered.

"We know it’s critical to save lives first," Anderson says.  "I know farmers who are forsaking their crops right now and using their tractors and other farm vehicles to help their friends and neighbors.  That’s the best thing we can do under the circumstances."