North Carolina crops, livestock battered by Irene

images (2) RALEIGH, N.C., Aug 29 (Reuters) – Hurricane Irene caused serious losses to North Carolina tobacco and food crops and could drive some farmers out of business, the state agriculture commissioner said on Monday.

The dollar cost and the percentage of crops and livestock lost will not be known until later, but the arrival of Irene at the start of crop harvest season was the worst possible timing for most farmers, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said.

"Crop-wise, this is a very tough time of year to have something like this happen," Troxler said. "There are going to be some crops that are a total loss in some areas."

Troxler said hurricane winds blew down crops and heavy rain flooded fields.

Poultry and hog farms, many of them large production centers for the nation, lost power to their poultry and hog houses, cutting off crucial ventilation and cooling systems. In some cases, backup generators were flooded.

In separate announcements, Smithfield Foods Inc (SFD.N), the nation’s largest hog producer, said on Monday some barns belonging to contract farmers in North Carolina and Virginia had minor structural damage but because of emergency generators all hogs were being fed and watered. [ID:nWNAB2870]

Perdue Farms, the No. 3 U.S. chicken producer, said on Sunday that none of its processing plants or farms had major structural damage, but many of its farms in North Carolina and on the Delmarva peninsula were without power and using generators because of Irene. [ID:nN1E77R0AS]

Farming and agribusiness in North Carolina are a $70 billion industry and 75 percent of the industry is in the state’s eastern counties hit by the storm, Troxler said.

North Carolina is the nation’s largest producer of tobacco, which last year generated an annual farm income of $582 million, according to state Department of Agriculture website.

Troxler said there would be "hundreds of millions" of dollars lost in damaged tobacco alone.

Other major crops in eastern North Carolina include soybeans, cotton, sweet potatoes and corn.

"About every major crop is going to be affected," Troxler said. "This is the heart of agriculture in the state."

Farming involves taking a risk on the weather and many farmers lost over the weekend, he said.

"Every year is a gamble," he said. "If you invest a lot of money and you lose, that’s going to take you down."

On a tour of the storm damage, Troxler said he met a Bertie County couple who said they were about to harvest their best tobacco crop ever when the storm destroyed it all.

"It’s hard to see the people and the anguish they are going through," Troxler said at a news conference in his office in Raleigh.

Federal crops insurance will cover some of the losses, but Troxler said most farmers are covered only up to 65 percent. He said that won’t cover the cost of producing a crop that never made it to market or was sharply reduced.