From the tractor
by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler
I was recently in Western North Carolina touring fields and apple orchards damaged by the Easter freeze and meeting with farmers and agribusiness owners in the area. I had purposefully postponed my visit to the area until May because as a farmer I know that often the day after a disaster is not the best time to look at crop damage. We expected to see some delayed damage to trees and plants following the extreme freeze, as well as potential recovery.
I can tell you I saw just about what I expected during my visit: Apple orchards with tiny brown, dead apple blossoms, strawberries with a far-less-than-normal amount of blooms, and high-quality nursery trees and shrubs with extensive dead areas.
I heard from several farmers about the types of damage they had experienced and the dilemma many face of trying to make something from next to nothing.
I have gone through similar situations as a farmer, and I understand both the frustration and the dogged determination to try to salvage something from a damaged crop.
More often than not, you end up pouring more money into it than you will ever see come back.
What I am afraid many people don’t understand is the business aspect of farming and the relatively small profit margins for many crops. One of the keys to being successful is your ability to control your expenses.
Take, for example, the apple crop. The blooms lost on the trees will not come back this year, which means no apples. But those trees still must be maintained this year in order to produce in 2008.
That means spraying, pruning and maintaining the orchard – all tasks that take time and money. Many apple growers will likely be 18 months between paychecks, which makes this even more difficult.
This is a similar situation with many of the nursery crops I saw. While some plants may not be technically dead, I saw examples where the freeze killed off a good portion of plant growth that will make it unmarketable for several years. So the farmer faces a tough decision: Does he continue to maintain these plants for two or more years with no guarantee he can return the plant to marketable quality, or does he cut his losses and start with new materials because he will have more money wrapped up in the plant than he can hope to make from it?
Jerry Merrill of Hendersonville, who with his son grows Japanese maples and other nursery plants for sale to retail outlets, finds himself in that situation. Some of his starter plants cost him $65 and that is before he waters, feeds and cares for it for several years until it reaches market size. He suffered damage to a number of plants that were ready to be sold this season. Instead of an attractively shaped plant that may retail for $700, he has a large plant with many dead limbs and a tiny pocket of leaf growth in the center.
In addition to the immediate damage and losses these farmers and agribusiness owners face, I also worry that the effects from this freeze will force more growers to sell their land and get out of business altogether.
We will continue to evaluate the damage across the state in the coming months. I have a trip planned to the Sandhills region to meet with peach growers to see the damage to their trees.
I have shared with Gov. Mike Easley what I saw and heard on my visit to the mountains. Gov. Easley has requested federal crop assistance, but as of press time, none has been made available. I know it is difficult to be patient in situations like this, but I fully expect it will be some time before we see any kind of decision on whether there will be federal aid to help farmers.
In the meantime, I’ve encouraged growers to contact their state and U.S. representatives to make sure they understand what a hardship this freeze has created. Ultimately, the decision on disaster aid rests with our state and federal lawmakers.
I hope consumers will continue to support N.C. growers by buying locally grown commodities when available.