Crops in North Carolina took a savage beating from Hurricane Irene on Aug. 20, but preliminary results suggest that fruits and vegetables fared reasonably well.

In southeastern North Carolina, Allan Thornton, North Carolina Extension Associate stationed in Sampson County, said, “Some fall cucumbers and sweet potato plants were beaten down. The most loss I heard of on any single farm was 20 percent to 25 percent on a big squash planting.

“Most damaged plants should grow out of any bruising they received…if we don’t get another hurricane. The fall season is just getting started.”

So far at the market, the product has been mediocre, but the market has held good, though with some exceptions, said Thornton. The watermelon market was red hot. But the crop didn’t get the size it needed.

Growers with no irrigation really struggled this year, Thornton said. “It is tough to produce any kind of produce without water. There is so much at risk.

“What has happened in the last few years is we have periods of the growing season where we have to supply 100 percent of the crop’s water needs,” he said. “That is hard to do. We are better able to handle supplementary irrigation than total irrigation. We need help from Mother Nature.”

There could be some changes on the horizon. “For 2012, the biggest growers are looking for some better way of getting water out in the field than overhead sprinkling,: said Thornton. “Pickle cucumber growers are experimenting with putting irrigation in the ground. This holds some promise.”

Pigweed is an enormous problem in vegetable crops in southeast North Carolina, as in much of the southeast. Chemical control is almost non-existent in vegetables.

“What we are going to have to do to deal with pigweed is look harder at controlling it in rotation crops,” Thornton said. “For example, soybean growers getting away from depending solely on Roundup and returning to pre-emergent herbicides, so that offers a chance to control pigweed.”

In sweet potatoes, he said, Valor has done a pretty good job on pigweed.

Hand weeding

For now, pulling it up by hand is the main control method. But that can be a problem in dry weather.

“If pigweed gets a little bit of growth, you can’t get it out of dry ground,” he said. “We may have to go to machetes, but you would have to cut close to the ground.”

James Sharp, a fruit and vegetable grower in Kenly, N.C., said Irene’s winds worked his crops over good where he farms in Wilson County. But they survived fairly well.

“We have had a good season so far. Dry weather and irrigation has led to a good crop. The crops we grow do well in hot, dry weather.”

One strong vegetable crop for Sharp has been collards. “They are very healthy and appeal to the health-conscious consumer. We plant in March and April and harvest until Christmas.”

He harvests collards by hand. “It includes a lot of stoop labor,” he said. “The harvest worker has to select the leaves that are ready. It is like a tobacco plant. You harvest from bottom to top.”

Sharp’s other fruit and vegetable crops are strawberries, lettuce, watermelon and sprite melons

The heat was brutal in North Carolina early in the summer, and it caused problems with fruit set, said Chris Gunter, North Carolina Extension specialist for the commercial vegetable industry.

“The middle sets were often lost, especially in the Piedmont.”

By Sept. 1, the heat had eased off, he said.

But Irene changed the face of things. “Many trellis crops like tomatoes were blown over by the winds, and it is virtually impossible in that case to pick them back up and expect them to survive.”

Some 3,000 to 4,000 acres of tomatoes in Virginia's Eastern Shore were partially flattened and swamped, said Steve Sturgis a Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services board member.

"The damage could adversely affect supply, because the Florida crop is not ready yet," he said.

Three commercial growers suffered losses. "These tomatoes are grown on stakes sticking five, six feet into the air," Sturgis said. "So you can imagine, you've got these walls of tomatoes, and when the wind comes and pushes on the wall, it just snaps those stakes off."

Because many of the North Carolina fields were flooded, there are now food safety issues about crops harvested from them.

“Growers are really concerned about this,” Gunter said. “Not just microbial contaminants, but also toxic substances that might have washed in.”

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