How the Natural Disasters of 2018 Affect How You Eat in 2019
In 2018 the U.S. bore the brunt of more than a dozen weather-related disasters, including but not limited to hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, the effects of which spanned the entire country, cost a lot of money, and impacted our nation's food system at large.
As of October 9, there have been nearly a dozen weather events that each achieved the dubious award of costing over a billion dollars, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). This tally did not yet include the raging Camp, Ventura, and Woolsey fires that ravaged California from November through early December.
For many, it's easy to forget a big storm or fire after the news cycle jumps to the next subject. But for others, especially those whose livelihoods depend on the wellbeing of crops or livestock (i.e., farmers and farm workers), the impacts are more largely felt — and for much longer.
Curious about how these costly disasters affected the foods that we eat, we reached out to Dirk Fillpot, a representative from the USDA Farm Service Agency. Fillpot told us that it is too early to quantify the damages; this process can take months after the dust has settled. "After we receive disaster-related applications, we then have better estimates about damage due to hurricanes or other weather-related disasters," Fillpot says.
And while we might not know exactly how our food system will change in the coming year due to the natural disasters of 2018, we know it undoubtedly will change. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of specific areas of our food system affected by extreme weather this year, and things you should look out for in 2019.
When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, most major crop harvests were still underway, or about to get started. "This hurricane couldn't have come at a worse time," said North Carolina Farm Bureau President, Larry Wooten, in an interview with PBS. Much of the state's corn crop was left shredded by the storm's powerful winds.
Hurricane Michael hit hard in Georgia, where poultry is the largest farming sector in the state, producing 5 million birds per day. More than 100 poultry houses were destroyed or damaged in the hurricane, and processing plants had to cease production in the immediate aftermath.
The devastating Camp Fire in California displaced various animals, including cattle. Conditions of extreme drought across the southwestern Four Corners region forced ranchers to sell-off livestock early due to "high feeding costs," according to the NCDC.
Pecan crops in South Carolina (where damage was estimated at $125 million), Florida, and Georgia were subject to damages by Hurricane Florence and Michael. Peanuts were left to rot in soaked soil.
In Georgia and Florida, Hurricane Michael came for pecans. Georgia's pecan producers took an estimated $100 million hit on the year's pecan crop, and lost $260 million worth of pecan trees. Timing was particularly bad, as most farmers were on the cusp of harvesting.
North Carolina is the largest sweet potato producer in the country, producing over half of the national harvest. When Hurricane Florence tore through the state, about 90 percent of the North Carolina's sweet potatoes were still unharvested. Sweet potatoes thrive in well-drained soil, so the hurricane's soaking caused them to become waterlogged and rotten. An initial USDA report after the storm reported that prices for a 40-pound case increased 15 percent.
Due to Hurricane Michael in Georgia, farmers sustained over $2 billion in damages. Damage to vegetables (including bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, squash, zucchini, and fall sweet corn) contributed to $300 million in losses.
The Malibu wine region was utterly devastated by the Woolsey fire, which scorched acres of vineyards and destroyed wineries.
How You Can Help Farmers
The USDA offers multiple disaster assistance programs for farmers affected by these natural disasters. But if you want to contribute to the cause more directly, consider donating to Farm Aid's Family Farm Disaster Fund, which directly helps farm families recover from the aftermath of weather-related disasters.