Hurricane Florence, now a Category 4 hurricane, is on track to collide with the North Carolina coast sometime early Thursday morning. It's noteworthy to mention that as models are being updated, the storm appears to be steadily taking a more northerly path than initially predicted. However, growers from South Carolina and into Virginia are taking no chances and are busy making preparations for the storm.

Many summer crops are still growing in this region, including corn and squash, and it is the start of the harvesting season for arguably the most noteworthy crop, sweet potatoes. For the most part, growers are most concerned with potential infrastructure damage, from pack houses and cool rooms to plastic and other miscellaneous items out in the fields. 

Image: National Hurricane Center

Sweet potatoes
For the root crops like sweet potatoes, rain will be the biggest hazard. "We are doing the best to prepare as we can now and make sure orders are being processed as much as possible," said Jeff Thomas of Scott Farms. "The wind is less of a factor for the plants themselves, but the rain can have the biggest effect on any of the root crops. Most attention will be on infrastructure. Our storage facilities are environmentally controlled and we moved into a new state-of-the-art facility in 2016. This has already been through one hurricane. At that time, product in the field was affected, but the sweet potatoes that were in the storehouse were okay."

With the North Carolina sweet potato harvest underway, it means that a partial amount of the state's crop is already in the storehouse. Thomas also noted that much of the preparation for hurricanes is done at the planting stage. "As an estimate, probably about 10 to 15 percent of the total crop has been harvested already," he said. "We perform all our field risk assessments at the outset of the planting stage to prepare for events like this. It is also incorporated into our Food Safety Program to ensure preparations are as thorough as possible."

Other crops
Other growers in North Carolina are preparing in a similar manner. Many were too busy to make a comment, but those that were able to expressed concerns regarding any potential infrastructure damage. "We're just going to tie everything down and hope there's not too much rain," said Brett Anderson of Eastern Produce, located nearer the coast at Rocky Point. "The majority of crops like squash can sustain the winds but excessive rainfall will be a problem. After the storm passes, we will try and get into the fields to pick any squash that has been wind scarred."

Meanwhile, also in Rocky Point, Lewis Nursery and Farms are not growing anything at the moment. The company will however, shortly begin planting strawberries for their winter berry program. While there are no crops that will be affected, again the concern is for infrastructure. "We're always concerned about potential damage," said Brock White of Lewis Nursery and Farms. "We will be in the process of planting strawberries for the next season but we don't anticipate any problems for the crop. The fields are prepared for planting however, and the storm may be problematic for the plastic we have laid out. We also have blueberry bushes that will be assessed afterwards. The hurricane will most likely have the most impact on row crops, such as corn which is still being harvested in North Carolina." 

Forecast 7 day rainfall (Image: National Weather Service)

Rainfall for those on the edge of system 
South Carolina is still on the watch list, but latest models are showing the storm tracking further north. Growers here, as those in western parts of North Carolina, will be watching out for excessive rainfall, which may harm or help them, depending on the amount. "We're in the bottom corner of South Carolina so we may miss it," said Bradley O'Neal of Coosaw Farms. "We've harvested our crops for the summer but the fields can still be affected by too much rain. A moderate amount would be welcomed though."

"Because we're in the mountains, rain will be the most concern for us," said Denise Critcher of Critcher Brothers Produce in Deer Gap. "We've had plenty of rain recently but we have still been able to cut cabbage today. We're not sure what will happen later in the week though. If cabbage gets too wet, it is more susceptible to Clubfoot disease. At the moment, we are cutting everything we can and getting it into the cooler."

Atlantic hurricane lineup (Image: National Hurricane Center)

Transport restrictions eased to help move crops
As Hurricane Florence approaches, the governments of North and South Carolina and Virginia are being proactive and have announced a State of Emergency in the region. Notably for growers and shippers, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed an order which temporarily waives the cap on maximum hours of service restrictions for trucks and heavy vehicles traveling in and through North Carolina. It also removes certain size and weight restrictions for trucks carrying crops.

The intent is to help farmers move more produce in and around the state as well as to free up trucks to help in any potential recovery efforts. Hurricane Florence is expected to gather speed as it approaches the coast and will likely be downgraded shortly after it crosses later on Thursday evening, although heavy rain is likely to persist for the Mid-Atlantic states. There are two more hurricanes further east in the Atlantic - Helene and Isaac - both of which will be monitored as the week progresses.

For more information:
Jeff Thomas
Scott Farms
Tel: +1 (919) 284-4030

Brett Anderson
Eastern Produce
Tel: +1 (910) 231-4858

Brock White
Lewis Nursery & Farms
Tel: +1 (910) 675-2394

Bradley O'Neal
Coosaw Farms
Tel: +1 (803) 632-2021

Denise Critcher
Critcher Bros. Produce
Tel: +1 (828) 264-2669