Live Oak Poultry and Crop Damage to ‘Impact Global Market’

Sep 22, 2023

By Megan Peschl

As the rest of Florida moves on after Hurricane Idalia, Suwannee County remains devastated. The areas impacted the most house chickens and crops, specifically peanuts and hay. Officials are worried about the recovery response and hope to receive outside help.

Chicken houses in Live Oak, Florida, were destroyed by wind and debris, but the silent killer came from power outages. The houses need power to keep the chickens in a safe environment. Wesley Wainwright, owner of Wainwright Farms, said his poultry farm is only able to operate at half capacity because of the losses caused by both damaged facilities and lack of power. 

“Without power for ventilation and cooling, the birds just suffocate,” he said. “But the damage picture is changing for me every two or three days depending on how fast I can get to something… to make sure the roof doesn’t fall.”

At Wainwright Farms, there are 18 chicken houses, and they each hold approximately 30,000 chickens. When a house is destroyed, tens of thousands of animals’ lives are at stake. 

Wainwright isn’t alone. With 150 chicken houses damaged or out of power in Suwannee County, Florida, the number of chicken casualties continues to grow. This number of houses doesn’t include surrounding counties, which can house up to 18 million chickens at a given time.

So far, 5 million chickens have died.

To avoid any more deaths, farmers will need to rebuild their houses. This is easier said than done, however, because one house costs roughly $500,000. According to Wainwright, it would cost $9 million to completely rebuild his farm.

This money would have to come out-of-pocket because insurance companies, according to Wainwright, no longer offer wind coverage for poultry houses in Florida. He explained that the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, researched the areas with the highest hurricane risk. The research showed Florida being the most at risk.

There is no legislation allowing or prohibiting insurance companies to offer wind coverage for agricultural facilities in the state. However, NOAA’s research was intended to assist in risk management, and insurance companies have not widely offered this coverage since it was produced, according to Wainwright. 

In Suwannee County, 95 percent of farms are family-owned, meaning they are essentially on their own to reestablish their farms unless they have insurance.

“What happens when the blanket is pulled out from under you, and you have nothing to go back on and no one to protect you?” Wainwright said.

According to him, their only hope of receiving help is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, which offers loans to family farms. First, they must qualify for the emergency loan program. This isn’t guaranteed, though, because there are requirements they must meet.

“Family farms have been under strain, and events like these tip the scales,” he said. “You just get tired of treading water.”

Poultry farms were only one group affected by the hurricane. Row crop farmers took a major hit, as well. De Broughton, a crop consultant with 6 Gen Ag Services, LLC, explained that it’s not possible to calculate the total losses for crops yet because the number will continue going up until harvest season is over, which is dependent on when the crop was planted.

“We can see the immediate effects already, but there’s going to be a snowball effect until the end of the season because of all the damage we can’t even see yet,” she said.

Peanuts appear to be one of the biggest losses for row crop farmers after Hurricane Idalia. Broughton said they’re the number one cash crop in North Florida, especially in Suwannee. 

They’re grown underground and dug up by a machine. If the stem of the plant is weakened, the digging machine won’t be able to pick up the peanut because it will detach from the vine and stay in the ground.

Broughton’s father is a medium-to-large grower in the area. She said he’s already taken a $2 million hit on his peanuts, not including any property damage he endured. She explained that this dollar amount for losses can end up increasing if they discover more crops were lost underground.

Even though peanut growers in other regions of Florida were left unscathed by Idalia, Suwannee and surrounding counties make up the vast majority of that industry for the state. The area has 78,000 acres of peanuts, which covers more space than the entire city of Orlando. Of those acres, self-reported estimated losses range from 1,000 pounds to 2,000 pounds of peanuts per acre. 

The power outages posed a similar problem for row crop farmers as poultry farmers. 

After digging peanuts up, they’re taken to a market location for the initial stages of drying and processing. Those locations have been shut down, according to Broughton, because they’re out of power. 

“Even if you want to get in the field to harvest crops and get the ball rolling, you don’t have anywhere to take them,” she said.

This doesn’t account for the crops grown above ground. The above-ground crops were essentially decimated during the storm, Broughton said.

“People are writing up 50 to 100 percent losses on all these [above ground] crops,” she said.

The crops that survived the hurricane are still not safe. It’s difficult for some people to irrigate or harvest their crops because of damages to their infrastructure. One example of this situation is with pivots that have been knocked over. A pivot is a large machine that expands across multiple acres of land to irrigate the crops. Some of these have flipped over, preventing the farmers from fully accessing their crops. 

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