Storm Swamps Mississippi Agriculture

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Mississippi poultry farms 100 miles north of the Gulf Coast were destroyed by Katrina. The state's timber industry was hard hit. In all, Mississippi is expecting billions of dollars in losses to farmers.

SHEILAH KAST, host:

While the future of New Orleans has commanded substantial political and media attention since Hurricane Katrina's storm surge flooded the city almost three weeks ago, in rural areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, farmers are struggling to rebound from the heavy blow dealt by Katrina's winds and rain. The storm damaged crops, cut off vital power supplies and kept perishable produce from reaching markets. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, some farmers are mapping recovery plans, but, for others, it's too late.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Agriculture is the most valuable industry in Mississippi and poultry is the most valuable commodity. The state has some 9,000 chicken houses, most located in a triangle between Jackson, Meridian and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Ray Hill's farm is in the southernmost part of that chicken-raising region, but, still, a good 100 miles inland from the Gulf.

Mr. RAY HILL (Chicken Farmer): You would think that that would put you a pretty safe distance from a hurricane.

HORSLEY: But Hill says when the storm passed through, he could feel his house vibrating. And when he came outside afterwards, he found six of his farm buildings destroyed. You can just see the top of his hay baler sticking through the collapsed roof of an equipment barn. And you can see right through the three hen houses that used to hold 45,000 chickens.

Mr. HILL: That house is leaning. It's leaning back this way. And it tore most of the roof off on the far end and caved in--wall in on it. So it's pretty well ruined.

HORSLEY: According to the state Farm Bureau Federation, more than a quarter of Mississippi's henhouses were damaged in the hurricane, and 300 were completely destroyed. Some chicken houses weathered the storm itself, only to lose birds when the power went out. That happened to David Holyfield's(ph) farm near the Mississippi town of Soso. Holyfield owns six highly automated chicken houses that depend on electricity for both water and ventilation. When both commercial power and back-up generators failed, the inside temperature in the henhouses soared to over 100 degrees.

Mr. DAVID HOLYFIELD (Chicken Farmer): Out of 138,000 chickens, we may have 2,000 alive, and they're out running around. Those chickens haven't had food or water in 14 days, aside from what was inside the houses, the carcasses.

HORSLEY: Those few surviving chickens cannot be sold. Animal welfare groups have adopted some in Mississippi but most will be killed and disposed of. Holyfield, who's a third-generation chicken farmer, called the storm a real test of his faith, especially when he and his father faced the task of cleaning out the chicken houses.

Mr. HOLYFIELD: It was really heart-wrenching to see all those chickens lying there dead, and walking on it. There was no ground. Your footing was questionable, at best. But it was something that had to be done, so we got in and we did it. I have a neighbor, he lost an entire house. They bulldozed it into the ground. We're talking 20,000 square feet of chicken house, full of chickens. They buried the chickens, the house, and all, in the same hole.

HORSLEY: Dairy farmers in Mississippi faced similar problems with damaged barns and spoiled milk. Catfish growers worry about who'll buy their fish now that so many restaurants are closed in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. And Mississippi's timber industry lost more trees in a single day than it typically harvests in a full year. David Holyfield is among the lucky ones. The company he raises chickens for, Sanderson Farms, is paying for the dead birds just as if they'd gone to slaughter. And before long Holyfield will be raising a new flock.

Mr. HOLYFIELD: It's really gut-wrenching to see your work go like this but you know you can start over. Just three more weeks we'll be back in business. That's the best part of it. It's still here, and we're OK.

HORSLEY: Farmers like Ray Hill, whose henhouses were destroyed, face a tougher choice. After 30 years in the poultry business, Hill says he's had enough.

Mr. HILL: I'm almost 62 and I think I'll get a Social Security check. I think I'll give up the chickens.

HORSLEY: The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation says Katrina cut a wide swath through all areas of the state's farm economy and it could be years before it comes back.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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