Growers Show Resilience in Overcoming Natural Disasters

When Mother Nature dealt out natural disasters over the past year, rural communities responded with resilience.

Published online: May 15, 2019 Articles Darcy Maulsby
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Source: Syngenta Thrive

Surreal. That’s the first word that sprang to mind as Kyle Koonce surveyed the destruction from Hurricane Florence last September in Jones County, N.C., where he was born and raised. 

“This was the worst flooding I’d ever seen,” says Koonce, a farmer, ag retailer with Meherrin Ag and assistant fire chief of the town of Trenton’s volunteer fire department. “More than 95 percent of my farm was flooded, 3.5 feet of water filled the fire station, and we rescued more than 200 people by using boats, tractors and school buses. It was devastating to see my friends and neighbors struggle.” 

When Hurricane Florence made landfall Sept. 14 as a Category 1 hurricane, it came ashore in North Carolina with 90 mph winds and a punishing storm surge. Governors in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland and other states declared states of emergency. Crop damage and livestock losses to North Carolina’s agriculture industry surpassed $1.1 billion. 

“Most hurricanes are 14- to 16-hour events, but this one lasted 4.5 days,” says Roy Gorena, a Syngenta sales representative in North Carolina. “While we normally get about 45 inches of rain a year, the hurricane pushed it to 100 inches in 2018.”

The hurricane battered crops and saturated soils, delaying or preventing the harvest of soybeans, cotton and high-value crops like sweet potatoes. In early 2019, growers still hadn’t harvested some fields. The hurricane’s destruction hit especially hard in Duplin County, says Elwood Garner, a North Carolina native and farm manager with Dail Farms, which produces crops, chickens and hogs near Kenansville. 

“It looked like a disaster zone here,” he says. “People lost everything they had, from homes to crops. It was heartbreaking to see all their damaged personal items piled up by the side of the road like mounds of debris.” 

California Wildfires Hurt Fruit Harvest 

On the other side of the country, ag producers faced much different—but equally devastating—disasters due to the 2018 wildfires. The turmoil started in northern California near Redding in July, when the Carr Fire blazed a fiery path along Highway 299, turning everything the flames touched into ash, mangled metal and black embers. 

Then came the “firenado,” a destructive, fire-generated vortex with the power of a tornado. This terrifying phenomenon accelerated the deadly Carr Fire, according to the University of Nevada, Reno. 

While the Carr Fire was horrendous, the Mendocino Complex fires were even worse. A pair of wildfires, the Ranch Fire and River Fire, erupted in Mendocino County in late July 2018 and moved through Lake, Colusa and Glenn counties to become the largest-recorded fire complex in California history, burning a combined 459,123 acres, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper. 

“The destructive fires have changed many lives in California,” says Lindee Jones, a crop consultant with Grow West in Lake County, Calif., near the Napa Valley wine region. “The Ranch Fire and River Fire occurred right around pear harvest, which complicated everything.” 

Delivery trucks hauling the ripe pears to packing sheds for cold storage had to find other routes after roads were closed due to thick wildfire smoke. More complications ensued when communities like Kelseyville were evacuated by early September. 

The Mendocino Complex fires’ incessant smoke also impacted a portion of the wine-grape crop in the North Coast region. In some instances, growers didn’t harvest grapes, or they sold them at a discount. 

“It was a really tough year,” says Jones, who notes that yet another wildfire, the Camp Fire in Butte County that erupted in November 2018, became the deadliest, most destructive fire in California history. “It seemed like the fires were never-ending.” 

“Any time America’s farmers suffer, we will work with our industry partners, lawmakers and their staffers to emphasize the need for disaster support. Agriculture stands united.”

Ariel Wiegard

What’s Going On? 

The extreme weather that afflicted many parts of North America in 2018 might seem unusual. If past weather patterns are any indication, though, more volatility is likely. 

“It’s already happening,” says Elwynn Taylor, Ph.D., an Iowa State University Extension climatologist. “History shows a trend toward 25 years of volatile weather and yields, followed by 17 to 18 years of fairly consistent yields. We’re moving into the 25-year cycle of volatility.” 

In Iowa, 2018 went down as the second-wettest year in recorded history, behind the great flood year of 1993. Taylor is also paying attention to El Niño and La Niña, complex weather patterns resulting from variations in ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. In early 2019, the El Niño pattern was weak. “More hurricanes can come ashore along the East Coast and Gulf Coast in these conditions,” Taylor says. 

Also, the worst weather of the century tends to occur on an 89-year cycle, Taylor says. This is due to a phenomenon known as the Gleissberg Cycle. Sun spots influence this pattern, which is reflected in more than 700 years of tree rings. This cycle appears to be responsible for the variations in global temperature during 30-year time periods. 

“The harshest weather in Iowa during the previous century occurred in 1936 and in 1847 in the 19th century,” Taylor says. “Researchers expect the current warming cycle to peak around 2025, which is when the harshest weather is likely to occur.” 

Responding to Changing Conditions 

While farmers can’t control the weather, they are adapting to changing conditions. The Lake County Winegrape Commission in California, for example, is undertaking a research project with the University of California, Davis, the Australian Wine Research Institute and other partners to study wildfire smoke effects on grapes and wines. 

“We want to support innovative, new findings and set a precedent for future research across Northern California and the West Coast,” says Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. 

Syngenta specialists who live and work in communities impacted by extreme weather are also doing their part to help local growers and ag retailers. Austin Anderson, a Syngenta sales representative from Greenville, North Carolina, delivered meals to people impacted by Hurricane Florence. “It’s all about neighbors helping neighbors,” he says. “Agriculture is a resilient community.” 

This focus on community extends to Washington, D.C., where Syngenta works with ag commodity groups and agribusiness colleagues to push disaster-aid packages forward to help farmers affected by hurricanes, fires and other disasters. 

“We help educate lawmakers about the real-world impacts of these disasters and show how their proposed policies can provide a lifeline for real people, real farms,” says Ariel Wiegard, manager of federal government relations for Syngenta. 

Securing funding for disaster relief for last year’s devastation, however, has been a long, complicated process, due to gridlock in Congress and events such as the 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government in January. “Any time America’s farmers suffer, we will work with our industry partners, lawmakers and their staffers to emphasize the need for disaster support. Agriculture stands united,” Wiegard says. 

Preparing for the Next Disaster 

Considering the gridlock conditions in Washington, Syngenta has also lobbied to mitigate the uncertainty that comes from relying on ad hoc farm-disaster assistance. For example, the Farm Bill signed into law in December 2018 won’t retroactively help growers affected by last year’s natural disasters, but it does allow for better risk management and more stable and accessible funding going forward. The bill, which Syngenta representatives in Washington lobbied for extensively, includes the following provisions: 

  • The Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-Raised Fish (ELAP) program, which assists with farm losses due to adverse weather and wildfires, will be open to a larger range of farm operations.
  • Growers can now specifically apply for Emergency Conservation Program funding to repair or replace fences damaged by wildfires.

In addition to shoring up an already-robust federal crop insurance program covering more than 100 crops on farms of all sizes, the Farm Bill created two new crop insurance policies: one for crops grown in greenhouses or other controlled environments, and another that will offer catastrophic tropical storm or hurricane coverage to producers of crops like tomatoes, peppers and citrus. 

Garner appreciates the support Syngenta provides legislatively and locally. “The people at Syngenta reach out to do anything they can to help,” he says. “While farmers tend to be an independent bunch, it makes you feel good that people still care and want to help their local communities.”