08/31/06 — Farmers rush to get crops in before rain

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Farmers rush to get crops in before rain

By Lee Williams
Published in News on August 31, 2006 1:45 PM

Harrell Overman, a Wayne County corn farmer, is worried.

Overman has the best corn crop in history, but much of his crop and profits could literally be washed down the drain if Hurricane Ernesto has its way.

So, he and other area farmers have been working around the clock to harvest as much corn as possible before Ernesto hits. And mill workers also have been busy working 15-hour days and processing more than 75,000 bushels of corn per day, officials said.

"We're working pretty long hours to get the corn in," Overman said Wednesday. "Our main concern is the wind. Once it's blown down, you lose a lot because it's hard to pick it up."

Overman has 1,550 acres of corn to clear. He and many other farmers rely on a large machine called a corn combine to extract corn from its tall, leafy stalks. But heavy rains and flooding could thwart their efforts.

"You can't get the machine in when it's flooded," he said.

To further complicate matters, thunderstorms unrelated to Ernesto dumped an estimated 3 inches of rain in the area Wednesday, weather officials said. Rain clouds continued to hover over Wayne County today.

Overman added healthy corn stalks are weakened by excessive water.

"The stalk is good, and the ear is heavy, and it's real easy to knock down once the ground gets wet." he said.

Ernesto could bring another 4 to 8 inches of rain once it crosses the North Carolina borders Friday. This could definitely spell trouble for farmers, Wayne County and the tax base, said Kevin Johnson, county agricultural extension agent.

"Storms can come in and cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage," Johnson said. "That could hurt the county. It's the second largest industry in the county after the base."

Johnson said $322 million in revenue comes from the farm industry in the county. He said Wayne County is the second largest agricultural county in the state behind Duplin and Sampson.

An inch or two of rain from Ernesto won't hurt, but 4 to 5 inches of rain could be detrimental to the corn and the tobacco crop that are both ready for harvest around this time of year.

Weather officials dismissed Ernesto as a weak hurricane, but Gerald Ballance, a tobacco farmer who has farms in Fremont and Pikeville, will not take his eyes off the storm.

"We're concerned," Ballance said. "We're just trying to do the best we can to get the tobacco crop in, but we don't think we'll be finished by the time it hits."

Some worry that the tobacco crop will be ravaged by disease, will rot or be washed away if they do not harvest the cash crop before the storm hits.

Ernesto has been downgraded to a Tropical Storm and finally to a Tropical Depression after it hit landfall in Florida this week. But Ernesto is expected to restrengthen in the balmy waters of the Atlantic Ocean and reemerge as a Tropical Storm, weather officials said.

Ernesto is expected to hit in nearby Greenville and Wilson and that concerns many. But Duplin County corn and tobacco farmer Carroll Jackson isn't necessarily losing any sleep over Ernesto.

Jackson owns 35 farms in Mount Olive and Rose Hill. He owns 200 acres of tobacco and 2,200 acres of corn. He has survived Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Hugo and he suspects he will survive Ernesto.

"I'm concerned about it, but I'm not worried sick about it," Jackson said.