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N.C. farmers struggle with flood woes; It's a make-or-break year for agriculture after Floyd's devastation


CONETOE, N.C. -- Before preparing sweet potato beds for the seedling harvest and beginning work on dormant farm equipment last month, Wayne Harrell talked with his insurance adjuster.

Six months since September's flooding, Harrell is still haggling over his losses. He found out recently that he will have to hire a lawyer and go to court to pick an arbitrator to settle his claims.

"Twenty-five to 30 percent of every day I spend dealing with the flood," said Harrell, an Edgecombe County farmer.

Hurricane Floyd's flooding caused $550 million in agriculture losses statewide. Before farmers like Harrell and his brother-in-law, Willie Owens, can prepare for this year's growing season, they're still trying to recover from last year's catastrophe.

"The problems keep going on and on; it's like a running river," Owens said.

No extra cushion

It is a make-or-break year for many farmers, agriculture experts say. Commodity prices remain low and the flooding stripped away any cushions farmers had to protect them if yields are low this year. And that's a distinct possibility.

"None of them have that extra cushion if there is a bad production season this year," said Mitch Smith, director of the Pitt County Cooperative Extension Service. "We are going into [the growing season] at a greater risk than we have historically."

One farmer from the Pitt County town of Fountain is unwilling to take that risk. The 55-year-old man quit farming this year after 29 years in the fields. He asked that his name not be used. "Would you want people to know you were almost beat down?" he asked.

The farmer lost 50 acres of soybeans to floodwaters, and the heavy rains associated with Hurricane Floyd and the other tropical storms last year reduced his yield. With his troubles compounded by low commodity prices, the farmer couldn't pay off his credit line for the first time since he started farming.

"You always wish next year will be better, but I got to the point where I wasn't going to fool myself any longer," he said. "My banker said, 'As a friend I hate to see you quit, but from a business standpoint I think you're right.' "

There are no firm statistics on how many farmers quit this year.

"Every day it seems we have another story of someone who had decided not to farm this year," Smith said. "It's going to take us a long time before we fully know how this has affected us and will continue to affect us."

The numbers may increase after this growing season if crop prices remain low, Smith and other experts say.

There is no unusual increase in farmers quitting, said Gene Charville, president of East Carolina Farm Credit, the region's largest farm lender.

"The 1990s were generally pretty good for agriculture, which means most farmers have entered this adversity in good financial shape, and it will help them get through adverse times like last year," he said. "But they can't continue to weather these problems."

The 2000 growing season is critical for the Harrell and Owens Farms of Conetoe.

Founded by Floyd and Ernestine Harrell in 1955, the 5,000-acre operation is now run by Harrell; his brother, Carl; brother-in-law, Willie Owens; and their wives. Their parents also remain involved.

$1.5 million flood loss

Harrell and Owens estimate their operation lost $1.5 million to the flood.

With crop insurance and federal aid, the family reduced the loss to $300,000. If more aid becomes available, as expected, the loss can be further reduced, Owens said.

The monetary losses are only part of the story, he said.

"There is a whole lot of pain beneath those figures," he said.

Owens, his wife, Pamela, and their two children lost their home in the flood. The mortgage was paid off eight months earlier.

The operation is also fighting its insurance company for a settlement on the farm equipment and buildings that were damaged by the flood. Fearing repercussions, Harrell declined to name the insurance company.

"[A friend] told me I'd get sad, I'd get mad and then I'd get glad. I didn't think I'd ever get over the mad part," Owens said.

It has been difficult watching the family struggle, said Roy Stancill, a family friend and their crop insurance agent.

"When these boys first got flooded it looked bad and they weren't sure if they could keep going," Stancill said. "But they got their crop insurance and the government kicked in and last time I saw them they were in a better mood now."

Harrell and Owens said their moods fluctuate. But their treatment by the insurance company has infuriated them.

"From what I'm hearing, in general, is farming in general is being targeted not to settle. They look at tractors and they think they are invincible. But there is a whole lot more electronics and computers on them."

The company offered $15,000 settlement for a $175,000 peanut combine.

The claim was sent to arbitration, but the parties can't agree on the arbitrator. They found out last month the court must now appoint an arbitrator. That requires hiring a lawyer to represent them, Harrell said.

"We're caught in limbo and they won't settle and now is the time to be planting," Harrell said.

The company has offered myriad excuses, he said. It offered $1,800 to pay off a $3,000 tobacco barn. The reason: tobacco quotas were cut last year so barns cost less, he said.

Without an insurance settlement the Harrells and Owens have been forced to pay for expensive repairs. Meanwhile, things keep breaking down just as they gear up for planting season.

Some of the work, like taking all the tires off their 27 peanut trucks so they can repair bearings, they do themselves.

Their efforts are slowed because they have to take time off to deal with other flood issues.

An employee is setting up a new mobile home and has needed time off. Owens is building a new house and needed time to complete the paperwork, file property titles, select a builder and inspect the work. All the siblings have taken time to help their parents repair their flood-damaged home.

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