More than 60 tornadoes cut an erratic path on Saturday from south-central North Carolina northeastward to the Virginia line, leaving 21 dead and untold dollars in property damage.

The zig-zagged path of the tornadoes took it through the heart of North Carolina’s cotton, peanut, livestock, and grain production region. While death and destruction lay in the direct path of the twisters, wind and rain damage from the front that produced the killer storms wreaked havoc on early planted crops and set back planting dates for others.

Though cities like Raleigh, Clinton and other small to mid-size towns and cities weren’t spared death and destruction, the brunt of the storms passed over primarily rural areas of the state. Along the more than 150 mile long path of the 60-plus twisters, debris from livestock barns, tobacco barns, greenhouses, grain storage silos, even dead livestock was widespread.

“The biggest problem for agriculture is the large amount of debris that is spread across multiple counties in the state,” says Richard Rhodes, Extension coordinator in Bertie County. It’s going to be difficult for farmers to get into their fields in many cases and impossible to harvest wheat with so much debris on the ground, he adds.

The deadliest of the twisters cut a swath across Bertie County, killing 11 people and leaving farmland in such disarray that planting a crop of any kind is still in question. “In one particular stretch of land between Askewville and Colerain, it is evident where the tornado that killed several people touched down. It was only 150 yards or so where it first came down, but widened out to a mile and a half or more wide once it came down. That’s a big agriculture area and debris is everywhere,” Rhodes stressed.

Planting a crop doubtful for some

“Quite frankly, if we don’t get some kind of assistance for farmers in a number of counties, especially in Bertie, they may not be able to plant a crop this year,” says Bob Sutter, executive director of the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association.

On Monday, Sharon Stuart and other members of Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler’s office met in emergency sessions trying to work out details of a farmer help program with the state’s prison system.

Farm labor is at a near critical shortage in the state and finding people to help clean up the debris is going to be a challenge. If a prison-work program can be worked out at least some of the hardest hit areas can be cleaned up enough to allow for planting.

North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue toured Bertie County on Monday, calling it “unlike anything I’ve ever seen — an utter disaster.”  After the storms, Gov. Perdue issued a State of Emergency declaration Saturday night and also waived weight restrictions on heavy trucks to allow relief supplies and crews to begin the recovery process.

Additionally, local States of Emergency have been declared in Bertie, Bladen, Cumberland, Greene, Halifax, Harnett, Hoke, Johnston, Lee, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson and Wake counties. At least 26 counties in the central and eastern part of the state have reported significant damage from tornadoes and severe winds.

“I talked to a farmer down in Bladen County who says many farmers in the county lost equipment barns, silos and other agriculture buildings. The destruction is widespread there and likely up and down the line of the tornadoes,” Sutter says.

The wheat crop which was in its final growth stages was heavily damaged by wind, torrential rains and hail from the weather front that spawned the deadly twisters. However, the direct damage to the crop was limited to fairly narrow bands along the 150 mile path of the tornadoes.      

Farmers are not going to be able to get into their fields to harvest wheat until debris is removed because the risk to expensive combines and other farm equipment used to harvest and haul the crop. That’s a much bigger risk to farmers than the wheat actually damaged by the storm, Rhodes says.

Some of the state’s corn crop was planted in early April, but much was delayed by wet soils and cool temperatures. The torrential rainfall that accompanied the deadly twisters likely pushed corn planting back another week or more. This delay could push planting time into cotton planting season.    

North Carolina, already expecting a 30 percent to 35 percent increase in cotton acreage, may see an even larger increase as farmers wait for drying conditions, and in many cases, to get fields cleaned up enough to plant.   

rroberson@farmpress.com