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Fred's rain ruins hundreds of acres of crops, further damages apples

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (left) listens as Kirby Johnson talks about crop damage caused by flooding. N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (left) listens as Kirby Johnson talks about crop damage caused by flooding.

MILLS RIVER — Bradley Johnston, Dave Shaffer, Jason Davis and Kirby Johnson sat around a picnic table outside Johnston’s barn, under the gaze of a few of Johnston’s Jersey cows, and talked about the growing season — in the past tense.

“I had the best crop this year that I had in 20 years,” said Johnson, who grows hundreds of acres of tomatoes. “It was perfect weather in Mills River. It was just an excellent growing year. This year of all the years I planted seven plants; normally I do five. Went to seven this year, starting May the 5th, the last one July 15th, which is another 30 acres of loss. Last plant, up the river, that’s why I planted up there, in case you do get one of these tropical storms and I’m a son of a b--- if it didn’t get three acres of it.”
The farmers were approaching harvest time for corn for feed and silage, tomatoes and other crops. Instead the rainfall from Tropical Storm Fred on Tuesday and big storm the day before dropped 6-9 inches of rain in the Mills River and French Broad River valleys, submerging the crop and ruining much of it.
“On a lot of it, water got up over the ears,” Johnston, who milks 63 cows for his Mills River Creamery, said of his 1,450 acres of corn. “We don’t know if we can’t harvest it, going to have to take a discount on it or what. Kind of like Dave’s sod. Water stays on it too long it kills the grass, and it’s a total loss.”
Dave Shaffer said it will take a few days to find out whether the turf crop he manages for SuperSod is ruined or is harvestable. The sod, visible on either side of the French Broad River where it passed under N.C. 280 here, is underwater now.
The intense rain from the storm on Tuesday pushed the Mills River hundreds of yards beyond the banks and created a huge logjam just west of the Hoopers Creek bridge.
“We’ve had eight floods in the last five years — there should be no debris in it,” Johnston said. “It’s all washed out. There’s trees in there 40 inches in diameter. They’re leanin’, they fall over, they take a metric ton of our dirt to Tennessee.” They don’t have enougn sense to plant little cane, that’s what I plant.”
DSC 0009Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler talks to farmers about crop damage.The farmers had met at Johnston’s dairy to await N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who reached Mills River on Thursday afternoon after touring even worse damage in Haywood County.
“We’ve been to Cruso and Bethel as far as we could go,” Troxler said when he arrived. “I’ve seen crop damage of all kinds, from vegetables to nurseries. We have also been flying so we’ve seen a lot of damage from the air. Coming in this morning, I saw a railroad trestle washed out. There’s a lot of water damage.”
While many large farmers have crop insurance, the claims don’t make up for the profit they stood to make on a good harvest. Troxler said the first thing he will seek is a federal disaster declaration, triggering relief programs through the U.S. Farm Service Agency, and then working with legislative leaders in Raleigh for state aid. He will be on the ground in Western North Carolina today with House Speaker Tim Moore “to look at the damage at the state side to see what the state can possibly do.” Gov. Roy Cooper, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn visited Haywood County on Thursday.
Troxler recalled that one of his first tasks when he was elected agriculture commissioner in 2004 — after the double hurricane disaster the month before — was to design a disaster program for the mountains.
“We have the expertise to do a disaster relief program. That’s the good news, he said. “The bad news is we’ve got to do it. … As bad as it is, if we can get the money to do a program, we’re ready.”
DSC 0030Floodwaters from the French Broad River cover a sod field.“I hate to have to continually doing these disaster programs” — mostly in recent years in Eastern North Carolina, where numerous hurricanes have ruined crops. “Then we come up here and we’ve got Western North Carolina tore up.”
On the bright side is that the state is sitting on a sizable surplus, and Troxler will try to persuade leaders to part with some of it for farm relief.
“I’ve done this for 16½ years and I know they’ve got money but they’ll never own up to it,” he said. “We will look at how we handle making people closer to whole than they are with just crop insurance.”
His advice to farmers with crop damage: “Take all the pictures you can take, keep receipts, start getting prepared right now so there’s no delay when a program is designed to help.”
Mark Williams, the executive director of AgHC, the farm promoting agency, said the storm also heavily damaged blackberries, apples and grapes. Blackberry farmers were nearing the tail end of a good season, while apple farmers had already seen losses of 70 to 80 percent of this year’s crop from two April freezes.
“Our berry folks, some were doing quite well with blackberries” before Fred ruined the crop, Williams said. “Devastation is not limited to this area.”