Up and Down the East Coast, Farmers Work to Rebuild After Hurricanes

When Hurricane Fiona touched down on Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the early morning hours of September 24, Gordon MacBeath was as prepared as he could be. His 250 head of cattle were tucked inside the boarded-up barn and he had diesel generators on standby. The dairy farmer and his family, who run Goldenflo Holsteins just outside of Charlottetown, the island’s capital, were safely inside the barn with the cows as well. They milk about 100 cows out of their herd and had just started the morning’s chores when the winds picked up. Soon, MacBeath was thankful for those generators.

“We lost our power,” says MacBeath, who hooked up the generator immediately. “We ran it 24/7 for a full week. We had a tremendous amount of tree damage, but no structural damage. We were very fortunate.”

Unfortunately, not everyone on the island was as lucky as the MacBeath family. MacBeath, who also sits as the chairman of the Dairy Farmers of Prince Edward Island, says many dairy farmers across the province were hit hard by the prolonged and vicious winds from Fiona. Out of 157 dairy farmers in the small province, about five percent are now out of the industry—at least for the time being. Their farms suffered too much damage and, as a result, have had to send their cattle to out farms until they can figure how to move forward. Then there are others who are dealing “with significant damage, like a roof blown off or a building or barn gone or a silo that’s blown down.” For those farmers, MacBeath says, fixing the infrastructure issues will take time.

Unfortunately, there are also issues to deal with in the short term—specifically, what to do about the corn.

Across the island, growers and dairy farmers alike grow corn as an additional energy source for cattle. But Hurricane Fiona walloped the crop, rendering much of it unusable. First, the winds flattened the stalks to the ground, where the crop is more likely to pick up mycotoxins, certain molds that can cause a variety of adverse health effects. Plus, the sheer speed of the winds (up to 140 kilometres, or 87 miles, per hour were recorded) exposed the plants to salt spray that enveloped the island from the ocean waves. “A combination of the windburn and the salt spray made the plants dry out significantly faster than they normally would. So, the corn has just been a mess,” MacBeath explains. “Some producers thought we could harvest it, but now, a lot of producers are walking away, because it’s just lost all its feed value.”

Other agriculture sectors across the maritime provinces were hitting hard as well. Potato farmers in Prince Edward Island have also lost infrastructure, are dealing with excess water in the ground and are concerned about their crop. Vegetable growers in Nova Scotia have lost tens of thousands of dollars in spoiled crops, ripped right from the ground, along with greenhouses and silos that were destroyed. Mussel fishers watched as Fiona washed entire crops out to sea, with one fisher losing nearly two million pounds of musselsincluding his seed crop for next year.

Now, Canadian farmers are looking to rebuild, but it’s going to be costly. First, there’s the cost of running those generators. MacBeath says that he used close to 2,000 liters of diesel fuel in about eight days alone. Plus, they’ll have to import corn from other sources to make up for the lost crops. That’s all before they even start rebuilding the infrastructure damage.

Just four days after Canada’s eastern provinces were still waking up without power after Hurricane Fiona, farmers along the Gulf Coast were bracing for their own storm. On the afternoon of Friday, September 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall along the western coast of Florida after beating down on Cuba. It dropped 20 inches of rain on the state, and it has left a trail of more than 60 dead, making it the fifth-deadliest hurricane in US history.

The devastation is immense, with flooding and destruction ripping up the western coast of the state, with one family farm in Manatee County losing 200 cows after the storm raged through. Importantly, one of the state’s best-known crops, the Florida orange, was also hit hard.

“Somewhere between 15 and 80 percent of growers have experienced loss,” says Natalie Sexton, vice president of marketing for Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company. “When a hurricane comes through, it blows the fruit to the ground. But then you also have to deal with flooding, and standing water that doesn’t drain can also kill the trees, if they’re sitting in water for extended periods of time. So, hurricanes are a very difficult time for growers, especially at the beginning of the season.”

Sexton comes from a citrus-farming background, with four generations of her family growing the fruit. Now, with the family’s juice processing company nearly nine million gallons of juice a year, they have to source oranges from growers across the state. The company uses three species of oranges—Valencia, pineapple and hamlin, all prized for their sweetness—to make a distinct juice blend without added sugars. Throughout the pandemic, it was getting harder to source the oranges they needed mainly from Florida growers, as supply chain issues caused shortages. Last year, they had to supplement with oranges from Mexico, and Sexton anticipates more challenges in the coming year, as Florida growers grapple with the long-lasting impacts of Ian.

Right now, Natalie’s has relationships with about 30 Florida growers, and Sexton expects to have to widen her pool in the coming months. The company has also relied on a cold storage method to preserve its harvest longer. But Sexton says it’s hard to future-proof against something as unpredictable as the weather. “We have had to rely on relationships from countries,” Sexton says. “It is somewhat of a security that if your local region is affected by a weather condition like a hurricane, you do have rely other vendors that are not as close to home that you can on.”

Like Sexton, MacBeath and other dairy farmers in Prince Edward Island will also have to rely on neighbors to rebuild in the coming months. He expects there will be many claims on crop and farm insurance, as well as possible help from either the federal or provincial government. As farmers look to rebuild, MacBeath says it’s important now, in ways it wasn’t just a decade ago, to think about the materials used and the locations of buildings. “As people rebuild these barns, we have to make sure that the structures could sustain winds a little better. Maybe position it in a direction to deflect wind, and use a material that can withstand these things,” says MacBeath.

Still, after more than a week without power, MacBeath says many of his neighbors and other farmers on the island kept a positive attitude. Things may have been dark, but they still had their generators. It could have been worse.

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