It wasn't bad enough that live hog prices plummeted to record lows. Now producers in the country's No. 2 pork-producing state are reeling from the pain and shock of the devastating blow delivered by a hurricane named Floyd.
Floyd blew through eastern North Carolina during the early morning hours of Sept. 16. Although communities that experienced the eye of the storm survived with minimal wind damage, the big story was the rain Floyd brought - an incomprehensible 19 in. during a 24-hour period.
What's more, Hurricane Dennis had dropped at least 8 in. of rain in the same region just two weeks earlier. And, a front two days prior to Floyd's arrival accounted for yet another 8 in. of precipitation.
The resulting flood was what some folks are calling the country's worst weather disaster in 500 years.
"It's hard to imagine unless you saw it in person," says W. G. Simmons, a swine Extension agent who serves four eastern North Carolina counties. A handful of producers in his area suffered devastating losses. One independent, 350-sow, farrow-to-finish operation is a total loss (see sidebar).
"It's so depressing," Simmons says. "Our producers are really struggling to make ends meet right now. And the homes of some of their employees were completely flooded."
The floodwaters have subsided. As of Oct. 13, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA) figured losses in the state's agricultural sector at $799,193,134. The NCDA estimated 28,000 hogs of all ages perished in the flood. The majority drowned, while some died from the stress of standing in water for two or more days.
"We are still determining the exact number of animal fatalities," says Todd See, North Carolina State University Extension swine specialist.
Long-Range Impact It's tough to pin down the long-range impact of the flooding on the Tarheel State's pork industry.
With electricity off on some farms, and flooded roads making feed delivery impossible for several days, a lot of pigs suffered temporary setbacks from food and water deprivation. Fortunately, See reports, only a few animals in a handful of herds suffered more serious effects.
"Some hogs are suffering respiratory ailments and feet problems and a number of sows are aborting now," he elaborates. "Some will breed back but we anticipate a lot of culling, with animals being evaluated on an individual basis."
See says that even if sows don't abort, increased stillbirths could be expected in the current production cycle. "We won't know the ultimate production losses among animals that survived for some time yet," he adds.
"Most of our producers are back to normal now and we don't expect any disease epidemics because of the flood," says Randy Jones, a Kinston, NC-based swine veterinarian who serves 30 to 40 pork-producing clients. "The biggest problem some producers are discouraged about is the lack of support from the federal government."
Howard Hill, director of veterinary services and multiplication for Murphy Family Farms, headquartered in Rose Hill, NC, reports the company and its contractors suffered minimal animal losses during the storm. "A few baby, nursery and finishing pigs died from hypothermia and we lost some breeding opportunities," Hill says.
Hill doubts the hurricane will have any effect on Murphy's merger with Smithfield Foods.
"As an industry, pork producers were more fortunate than other farmers in North Carolina," says Beth Anne Mumford, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC). "There are about 2,500 hog farms in our state and 98% of them were not flooded.
"But, just because the flood waters have receded doesn't mean all of our producers have recovered," Mumford continues. "There's lots of clean-up work to be done on many farms and in many communities and it will take some time for everyone to fully recover."
Government Aid According to Mumford, it is still unclear how much, if any, federal disaster funds will be available to North Carolina farmers, particularly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We'll have to wait and see what happens in the weeks and months ahead before we are able to fully assess the long-range effects of the flood," she adds.
"Right now we're primarily trying to get information out to producers. There will be delayed effects for some producers and undoubtedly some will elect to exit the industry."
The NCPC recently established a toll-free assistance line: (888) 633-5926. Environmental Concerns
"Relative to the big picture, we currently are evaluating how best to provide assistance and incentives for pork producers," says Don Reuter, public affairs director for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR). To that end, NCDENR has three major goals.
The first goal is to help producers relocate their facilities outside the flood plain if they desire to do so. However, anyone relocating would have to comply with current guidelines for siting and design.
Secondly, if and when producers do rebuild, NCDENR wants to help them develop new, innovative waste management systems, in accordance with the governor's Lagoon Conversion Plan. (For details, check the Web site: www.ehnr.state.nc.us/EHNR.)
"Finally, for producers interested in pursuing an alternate career, we hope to implement a buyout opportunity," Reuter says.
NCDENR officials are in the process of developing more specific policies relative to these goals. (For updates, check the Web site, listed above.)
"Ultimately, our objective is that people who want to continue farming should be able to do so," Reuter emphasizes. "But as they rebuild and recover, they should do so in the most responsible way."
On Aug. 30, 1999, the inventory at M & R Livestock, Trenton, NC, totaled 4,522 head. The independent, 350-sow, farrow-to-finish operation is owned by cousins Allen and Phillip McCoy.
Hurricane Floyd's floodwaters rose over 10 ft. at McCoys' and, despite exhaustive efforts by many friends, the partners were able to save only 125 animals from drowning. The survivors were ultimately culled. Allen McCoy points to the high-water mark at right.
What remains of this nightmare is more ghost town than farm, a total loss by any name. A lone gilt that swam to high ground roams in the woods that surround the 38-acre property. The McCoys have no flood or livestock insurance and preliminary calculations suggest losses from $800,000 to $1 million. Allen is co-owner of another 700-sow, farrow-to-finish farm but Phillip has no other source of income.
Exhibiting remarkable class and dignity in light of complete devastation as they approach retirement, the McCoys are grateful their homes (located off the flooded farm) were spared. "Many other people are worse off than us," they say.
"At this point, we have no sense of direction," Allen admits. "This has been the wildest ride that anyone could imagine. We don't have any desire to re-build. The flood has taken a lot out of us and we don't have any fight left."