Farm Side

By Marianne Friers

Watching the horror unfold in Texas over the past week or so has been all too eerily like watching the flood of June 2006 and storms Irene and Sandy creep over our hills and valleys here in New York. I will never forget an evening late in the summer of 2011, sitting at the computer watching as people shared images of the Schoharie Valley filling up with dirty water.

It was at once transfixing and yet horrifying. I have loved that valley since the first time we crested over the hills overlooking it on a trip to Florida when I was still in college. I wasn’t exactly the widest traveled bird in the flock in those days, and those green hills and fertile fields looked a lot like Heaven. After that terrible storm went through it must have seemed more like Hell.

It wasn’t so very different watching Harvey thunder through Houston and surrounding Texas. Thanks to social media and 24/7 coverage of such events on TV, we experience everything almost as it happens. The horrors and the heroes find their way right into our homes. I have friends down there, folks I “met” only via the little white screen in the little gray box, but people whose lives matter just the same. As far as I know they are all okay, but a very different version of okay than before the storm hit.

One rancher shared video of flood waters licking at his pasture fence, closer and ever closer, the same reddish brown color as the floods brought by Irene. They were held back for a bit by rolls of hay, but I am sure that fence is gone now.

Indeed losses to agriculture were probably staggering. However, no one will know for sure until all the waters have receded and damage has been assessed. Ag Week said that in Texas alone 1.2 million beef cattle were contained in the 54 area counties where a disaster has already been declared. They quoted Dr. David Anderson, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service livestock economist in College Station, as saying that number added up to 27 percent of the state’s entire beef herd. He also said that the number might be quite conservative, as many counties don’t maintain inventories of cattle numbers.

Along with the ranches, crop farms have been devastated as well. Feedstuffs reported that hundreds of cotton modules have been torn apart and scattered by the winds and waters and are a total loss.

Cotton modules are those huge rectangular blocks of cotton you see lined up along the edges of fields in the south. The cotton is gathered by a special machine that aggregates and compacts cotton into gigantic cubes for hauling to the gin. Modern cotton pickers have module builders attached right to them.

Besides the damage to the already-harvested fiber crop, Feedstuffs also quoted Dr. John Robertson as saying that nearly 400,000 bales worth of cotton had been lost before harvest as well.

I found one photo that looked like ice on barbed wire, much like farmers often see when there is thick hoar frost in the winter. However, the white stuff plastered to the fence was cotton blown out of nearby modules. It coated the ground as well, looking more like snow than like the stuff that blue jeans are made of.

Damage estimates to crops alone have climbed well into the millions of dollars with accurate assessments once again impossible so far.

Meanwhile, coastal ports are closed to shipping for now, shutting down exports of wheat, corn, and soybeans. The storm has also forced the temporary closing of oil refineries to the tune of 24 percent of our national capacity.

Even here in the Northeast we are feeling that pinch, as fuel prices jump almost daily.

Sadly, the story of the terrible storm will continue in weeks, months, and even years to come. Even the repair of many miles of cattle fencing is likely to take a long time. Feed stocks were destroyed as well. The Texas Department of Agriculture is maintaining a hay hotline for those interested in donating hay to farmers and ranchers who have lost almost everything but still need to feed what cattle they have left.

In another much less publicized but similarly devastating situation, much of the northwestern part of the country is still on fire. Worse yet, new fires are cropping up quite often, as extreme fire danger conditions continue. Drought, lightning, human carelessness, and forest mismanagement have combined to create a fire season that will go down in the record books.

A serious blaze, the Eagle Creek fire  in Oregon, is alleged to have been started by kids tossing firecrackers in a canyon. The Chetco Bar fire has burned over 143,000 acres since it was started by lightning on July 12. The Indian Creek blaze has been burning since the Fourth of July, but just increased greatly in size this week.

In Montana, a state of emergency has been declared in 40 of its 56 counties, as fires burn all over that state. Many of these have been burning since much earlier in the summer as well. As of this week nearly a million acres have been scorched.

Besides the initial damage done by the fires, soil can be impacted by the heat, destroying and redistributing nutrients with long-lasting effects. Although actual cattle losses are said to have been limited, grass has been burned off thousands of acres, leaving the outlook for winter feed downright dismal. Fences and buildings have been destroyed as well.

Between fire and water, a large section of U.S. agriculture has been impacted by natural disaster this summer. However, as always, the willingness of Americans to step up and help in any way they can has been in evidence during all of these ongoing events. Stories from the frontlines of flame and flood have been enough to have you thinking that we might not be quite as divided as we’ve been told.

Fultonville dairy farmer Marianne Friers is a regular columnist. She blogs at http://northvilledairy.blogspot.com.