As federal, state and local authorities and rescue teams continue to search for survivors and start the process of debris removal caused by the first category four hurricane to ravage the nation in over a dozen years, USDA and state agriculture officials are beginning to assess the potential short and long-range implications of how the disaster will affect farmers and ranchers, not only in Texas but across the nation.
As reports trickle in, a concerning outlook for agriculture is becoming more evident. The devastation created by the storm may have far reaching implications for Texas producers and farmers in other states as well.
Early assessment of damages indicates that agricultural interests in Southeast Texas and south along the mid coast region will be the hardest hit from crop and livestock losses. Cotton farmers particularly are reporting substantial losses as crops in the field were lost as well as cotton that was in modules and awaiting transport to area gins. Ginners and warehouses who desperately attempted to protect cotton at their facilities also suffered devastating losses. Some gins were badly damaged; others remain closed or are operating at reduced levels “until further notice.”
STILL COUNTING LIVESTOCK LOSSES
In addition, livestock losses are still being counted; lost or dead animals are still being discovered. An estimated 1.2 million beef cows were pastured in the 54 counties most affected by the storm. While diligent producers began moving livestock days ahead of the storm’s arrival, no one yet knows for certain the percentage that may have perished.
Some farm equipment has been lost or damaged in hardest hit areas, the extent of which is still unknown. And while cotton losses are well known, other crops in the areas heavily affected by high wind and flooding, including specialty crops like produce, pecans, olives, squash and specialty melons and pumpkins, add significantly to total losses caused by the hurricane. While these crops represent a small percentage of agriculture affected by the storm, the damage to infrastructure— damaged highways, sea ports at Houston and Corpus Christi, and rail lines—could be costly to Texas producers as well as to agriculture beyond the area hit hardest by the storm.
Many roads and highways have been reopened leading into shipping ports, but the flow of agricultural products to those ports has been badly disrupted. Shipping lanes in the Port of Houston are still being cleared before normal docking schedules can be resumed. On top of that, the City of Houston remains in a state of emergency, and many port workers have yet to return. An estimated 652,000 jobs have been generated by the port and its terminals through the years; 56,000 of those workers are directly employed by the port and its business partners.
According to the Houston Port Authority, the port is the busiest seaport in the country in terms of ship traffic, and is widely regarded as one of the largest economic drivers of both Houston and State of Texas. Houston receives the most imports of any port in the country, and it has transported the most foreign cargo tonnage–both imports and exports –for a number of years.
Also a major setback is the production and transportation of petrochemicals in and out of both Houston and Corpus Christi. Houston ranks No. 1 as the largest petrochemical port in the U.S., and the second largest in the world. The Port of Corpus Christi is the third largest petroleum port in the nation. Combined, the two ports make up well over a third of all fuel production and oil and fuel imports and exports in the nation.
Late last week, the Port of Corpus Christi allowed the first incoming ship since landfall of Hurricane Harvey, signaling the restricted reopening of that port facility. But officials for the port warned that an estimated 250 vessels were blown into the port and surrounding waters, the majority of them submerged by the storm. One ship, the Paragon, a massive oil drilling vessel, strayed into the ship channel, and was badly damaged and listing, but remained afloat in the channel with the assistance of tugboats.
The vessel had broken lose and traveled three miles from the oil rig where it was moored, damaging its two companion tug boats, sinking one of them. Port authorities say hundreds of other ships and boats remain marooned or submerged after being tossed by high winds. Ships are now being allowed into the port during daylight hours.
As a result of refinery closings in Houston and Corpus Christi, gasoline and diesel prices have been spiraling higher each day for over the last week and are expected to continue to rise until full production and shipping resume on the Texas coast. This will necessarily increase operational costs on the farm and ranch and the cost of shipping products to their final destinations.
TRANSPORTATION COSTS RISE
Trucking costs in Texas have already increased since landfall of the storm, with estimates of nearly 35 to 40 cents more per mile, according to Fleet Owner magazine. While most Interstates have reopened, railroads have also been affected, and any repairs on the rail system must be inspected and approved before service can fully resume. Overall, not only will higher fuel and transportation costs hurt producers, consumers will feel the heat as both domestic and even imported produce prices are expected to increase as a result, and that could result in changes in consumer buyer trends in the weeks ahead.
According to the web site “Growing Produce,” Houston is a major export hub for fruit and vegetables. Any exports waiting to be loaded on ships currently remain in warehouses until normal shipping schedules resume.
FOOD SAFETY FIRST
Specialty crop producers in Southeast Texas must adhere to a Federal Drug Administration (FDA) warning that requires all edible foods, crops, fruits, and vegetables exposed to flood waters in the designated disaster zone be destroyed over fear of contamination. This warning applies to both organic and commercial food producers.
According to the Organic Life web site, Gundermann Acres, a 500-acre farm in Wharton County, Texas, was hit hard by the flood. Owners say the crops on the farm are a complete loss. The report also indicated organic growers in Arkansas and Kentucky have suffered from heavy floods as a result of the remnants of Harvey. One Arkansas producer who grows pumpkins and sweet potatoes says most of his crop has been destroyed or lost to disease because of heavy rains earlier this year.