Hurricane Leaves Harvest Havoc

Farmers in Florida and Louisiana are assessing the damage to many fall crops

WHEN Hurricane Andrew blew through the bayou country of Acadiana here, it decimated one of Louisiana's oldest crops and the economic fortunes of those who depend on it.

"All of my crops were, in one way or the other, affected," said Jessie Breaux, a sugar cane farmer who estimates that the storm destroyed nearly half the cane on his plantation. "For many of us down here, this is just about the worst thing that could have happened. We were looking to this harvest to put us ahead; now I'm not even sure we're going to break even."

Although no firm figures are available, it is estimated that about 25 percent of Louisiana's $500 million sugar crop was destroyed. Last week, on a tour here with President Bush, Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) said the hurricane caused more than $250 million in damage to sugar cane, soybeans, and cotton. Property damage is more than $150 million.

"What makes this such a tragedy is that it is the third year in a row something devastating has happened to the sugar cane farmers in this area," said John deGravelles, vice president of the American Sugar Cane League. "First, we had a big freeze in 1989 that destroyed about 50 percent of the 1990 crop, then flooding and freezing in 1991, and now this. These guys have really been put to the test."

Sugar cane - first introduced in Louisiana in 1751 - has since emerged as the state's largest agricultural product, employing thousands of people on more than 10,000 plantations. In 1989 more than 850,000 tons of sugar cane were harvested in this region, and farmers had high hopes that the crop - harvested from October to December - would exceed one million tons this year.

Hurricane Andrew not only makes it impossible to reach that goal, but also makes it likely that the remaining crops will be much harder to harvest.

"We had winds of about 150 miles per hour, and the eye of the hurricane blew the cane in one direction, while the winds that followed blew it in another," said Mr. Breaux, who has owned a farm for about 10 years.

This means the cane will have to use all its energy to grow anew, leaving little or no ability to manufacture sugar.

BECAUSE Hurricane Andrew first hit Florida, Louisiana's sugar cane farmers were not the only ones to see their crops blown to pieces. In Florida not only were the lime, avocado, and mango crops of the southern region almost completely wiped out, but prospects for the ornamental nursery and winter vegetable crops are little better.

"The impact of the disaster on things that grow in southern Florida, particularly in Dade County, is vast," said Bob Blankenship, information officer with Florida's Department of Agriculture. "Several counties got hit, but none of them suffered the damage that Dade did, which is the center for the foliage business in Florida."

Mr. Blankenship says the foliage business is completely decimated. "They are even finding plant pots as far away as the Everglades, which is more than 50 miles to the east."

Although most of Florida's winter vegetable crops had not been planted by the time Andrew arrived, agriculture officials worry that ocean salt spray may have ruined up to 5,000 planting acres in southern Florida - making it almost certain that sales for the crop will be far below last year's $228 million.

Blankenship said there is also noncrop damage: "A lot of livestock in Dade County was killed, including about 250 horses, and some 25 aquaculture farms where they grow tropical fish.

Then, Blankenship says, there is damage to structures, water pumps, and packing houses at these farms. He says early damage estimates are close to $580 million.

This damage brings additional hardship to those who depend on the crops for seasonal work. Although Florida's tropical citrus industry was spared the wrath of the hurricane, mainly because such crops are located near the central part of Florida, the storm means that up to one quarter of the state's nearly 40,000 migrant laborers may be without work this winter.

As is the case in Louisiana, however, federal officials have committed themselves to a huge funding and loan program for farmers who suffered losses. Last week a loan-assistance program was set up both in Baton Rouge and Miami.

Whether such funds and help will arrive in time to make up for immediate losses, however, is another matter. "There is bound to be a lag time," said Mr. deGravelles of the American Sugar Cane League. "And I just don't see how any of the farmers will get back everything they have lost."

"But on the other hand, most of these farmers are survivors, and they'll do whatever they have to do to stay in business. Some will go under but most will stay and fight another day."

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