Hurricane Florence has caused an estimated $1 billion in damages to farms in the Carolinas, and the destruction continues. Lindsey interviews Davon Goodwin, a North Carolina farmer and manager of the Sandhills AGInnovation Center, to find out what it looks like on the ground, how farmers are trying to recover from the losses, and what can be done to build resilience to natural disasters in the future.
AND, the farm bill expires September 30th. Ryan McCrimmon of Politico’s Morning Agriculture gives us the rundown on what to expect by, and after, the deadline.
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Lindsey: This is the Young Farmers Podcast. I’m Lindsey Lusher Shute. Last week, Hurricane Florence devastated the Carolinas and made a big impact on farmers. Today I’m speaking with Davon Goodwin. Davon is a great farmer and also the manager of the Sand Hills Agricultural Innovation Center in North Carolina. We talk about what happened to his farm in the storm and what’s next. But before we get to Davon, the farm bill is due to expire on September 30th, so I called up Ryan McCrimmon from Politico, the current writer for Morning Agriculture, to give us an update. So what’s happening this week with farm bill negotiations–We just have a few days now to make a deal. Seems like it’s not going to happen.
Ryan: No, that’s what we’re thinking. If they don’t get it done this week, which is pretty clear that they’re not going to, it could be a little while before they actually get a final farm bill passed. And then there’s a whole other question of what happens in the midterm elections and how that will affect the farm bill talks afterwards.
Lindsey: Yeah. What’s the calculus on that for Democrats? I mean if they do retake the house, like what do you think their strategy might be post election should they be in the majority?
Ryan: I would think that they’ll still want to get it done in December as opposed to sort of starting from scratch and like writing their own farm bill. If they don’t do it by December, if they wait until January, that’s a whole new congress. So the whole process technically has to sort of start from scratch. They’ll have to reintroduce the legislation. So that’s a lot of extra hurdles to go through if they don’t finish in the lame duck session. So my assumption would be that they somehow get a deal by then, but if Democrats do take the house, they may still want a deal in December because it’s less likely that the Senate would flip. So they’ll still be having to make a deal with a Republican controlled Senate. So it’s not like they’d have all the power if they just wait until January to write any sort of farm bill they want. They would still have to negotiate with the Republican Senate and of course President Trump. So I think there’s still a deal to be made somewhere in the middle. I would guess that happens in December, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Lindsey: So SNAP is the major sticking point and of course there are some programs that will be stranded, including this Beginning Farmer and Fancher Development Program after the September 30th deadline if there is not an extension. Are you hearing members talk about, you know, these stranded programs as something that they’re worried about?
Ryan: I would say they are worried about it, but they’re also I think kind of resigned to not getting a deal at this point. For whatever reason, they sort of don’t think there’s as much urgency now as there will be before the end of the calendar year to finish before January.
Lindsey: And why is Conaway-like who is cheering him on to stay strong and negotiate? Like do you have a sense of like where that that comes from? I mean because you know, Stabenow and Roberts are like more or less in lockstep. If they pass the Senate bill with sort of not consensus but broad support and the Senate bipartisan support. Conaway only had Republicans voting on the House version of the farm bill. Like where is that coming from? I assumed some pressure is on him too from home saying “let’s get this done.”
Ryan: Yeah. I think that he would say that is really the priority-is getting this done for farmers. But I think to your question of who’s sort of spurring on this push for work requirements for snap is really just sort of the House Republican Conference. And that’s sort of one of the differences in general between the House and the Senate- the Senate is always sort of forced to compromise more and have more bipartisan approaches and the house is much more controlled by the majority. And so in this case there, they don’t really want to back down on this thing that’s a huge priority for their party.
Lindsey: And is this sense that a postelection, that Stabenow and Roberts will have a stronger negotiating position, postelection?
Ryan: Could be. It depends how the elections turn out. I mean, if Republicans hang onto the house, I think they will be emboldened, because I think there’s a lot of people right now who are sort of assuming that Democrats will win the house. And I think if they don’t, I think that’ll definitely sort of pardon house Republicans positions. And so I don’t, I mean at this point, I don’t think it’s safe to say that Conaway or the Republicans would back down on their push for work requirements.
Lindsey: And on top of all of this, we have hurricane relief, right? And farmers in crisis in North Carolina. And we also have new tariffs. So farmers are just, they’re in a really, really tough position. So I guess starting with the tariffs, there are new tariffs that were put in place yesterday. Retaliatory tariffs from both sides, US on China and China on the US. How do those tariffs compare to what’s been put in place previously up to now or up to this point?
Ryan: So the extent of it is that it’s exponential, how many more tariffs there are now. I mean, we went from the US imposing about 50, 53 billion tariffs on about 53 billion worth of Chinese goods to now it’s more than 250 billion. And the Chinese retaliated with another 60 billion on US products and that, you know, now basically every food and agricultural product is covered by those tariffs. So things are certainly not getting any better on the tariff front. And the Trump administration is trying to offset some of the damage with their trade relief program, but that is not going to make up at all for the full damage of the tariffs.
Lindsey: Yeah. So I’m always surprised when I hear farmers say that they’re 100 percent behind the president and some of them are bearing the brunt of this trade war, right? Commodity producers in particular. Is that the idea that some of these producers that are still in support of these policies, but really feeling the pain of these policies, they are hoping that at the end of it we’re going to get a better deal. Is there a better deal to be struck on some of these commodities? Like was there a bad deal before now?
Ryan: That is definitely what a lot of farmers are hoping for- they sort of trust Trump that in the end this will pay off, short term pain for long term gain. think it’s sort of unclear how much fallout there will be from the President’s tariff policy. There’s some concern, I think among Republican groups that farmers’ support for the president will be lowered because of these policies. Even if it’s in smaller numbers than you might expect, that could obviously, you know, in such a such a tight, contentious midterm season that any sort of a dropoff in support can be decisive in certain races. So that’s one of the biggest issues. And then you see USDA rolling out their Trade Aid Plan. Will that tide over some folks who were really feeling the pain, right around election season coincidentally. And so, this is one of the biggest issues to watch in terms of policy and also the politics of it.
Lindsey: At first I really wasn’t aware that the US is essentially borrowing money to buy these commodities and provide aid to these farmers and that money could very well be borrowed from China. So is that a conversation that’s happening about what’s really going on here? Or you know, are farmers just very grateful that they have the support?
Ryan: I think farmers in general are glad to have it, even though I think most will say that it’s not, you know, it’s not nearly enough. But to your question of “is this sort of just like a bailout,” there was some criticism of that from the beginning, but I think that’s one of the points that’s sort of been like, people have sort of moved on from that it seems in the past couple of weeks.
Lindsey: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely difficult to hear just in terms of who needs a bail out. Lie is it just poor people on SNAP benefits, right? Or is it farmers who are dealing with this terrible trade situation? I mean it’s, I don’t know, it’s very complicated. So a lot of stuff in the works. This week, are there going to be ongoing negotiations? Will there be any further meetings of the conference committee on Farm Bill?
Ryan: I don’t think there will be any formal public conference meetings, but the leaders of the two committees of the big four, as we call them, I think they’ll basically be in touch every day, I would assume until maybe at some point they’ll just agree that they’re not going to get it done. And I think you are looking at after the elections, December maybe.
Lindsey: And I’m just wondering at this stage in the game, how dug in is the President on these work requirements, and how involved is the administration in these negotiations? Or are they not yet?
Ryan: I would say they are involved, but I think the big four leaders of the committees are really driving the talks. I don’t know exactly if the work requirements issue will be sort of a deal breaker for the administration just because the president has sort of tweeted out that that was an imperative. It doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t sign a farm bill that had less than what he and House Republicans are seeking. Especially because obviously the administration knows that the agricultural community is one of their main bases of support and I think they’re gonna really want to help them out. But it’s really hard to predict. Trump, as you know, is very unpredictable and we’ll have to see, you know. I would watch his Twitter account for where he stands as things go along.
Lindsey: Okay. Well Ryan, thank you so much for this update. This is really helpful and um, yeah.
Ryan: Oh, very, very happy to be here.
Lindsey: Talk to you soon. Thanks so much.
Ryan: Take care.
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Lindsey: Now onto my conversation with Davon. So Davon, what was the impact of Florence, of the hurricane on your existing farm that you’ve down-scaled a bit this year? Looking to transition as well as the new property that you are about to purchase.
Davon: Yeah so, on a different property than we have now, the wind was catastrophic. I mean we probably lost about 40 percent of our grapes. Our grapes right now are sitting on the ground rotten, which was not good obviously. So we have a huge amount of wind and then we had a ton of rain. Our grapes are so big and so heavy that if we had just had rain, we maybe would have made it out. But with the rain plus the wind, it wasn’t going to be good. So we actually lost a lot of trunks. The winter was so severe that it broke a lot of trunks in half and it took a lot of trunks off the trellis line. So we have rows and rows of grapes just laying on the ground now. It felt like the wind just blew for days upon days. It was a very, very slow moving compared to the hurricanes that I’ve been in. This one was just slow, it seemed like it didn’t go anywhere. And we just got pounded and pounded with the wind and the rain. And so one kinda got us and land, half of it was underwater. We had a lot of trees fall, you know, a lot big trees fell around the farm. None of them fell on the trellises in the vineyard, but a lot of, a lot of fence lines out there. We’ve seen that most of our grapes are on the ground. Before the hurricane, we were probably maybe 50 to 60 percent done, like harvested our crop. But I mean we still had a tremendous amount of grapes left and so economically, it was pretty devastating.
Davon: We will probably cover our costs, but I mean we’ve obviously want to do better than that. So this is one of the problems. I didn’t have crop insurance, you know, which, moving forward we will definitely have that. With the weather being so sporadic, as a young farmer, you gotta have proper insurance.
Lindsey: Why haven’t you bought crop insurance previously?
Davon: A couple of reasons. I kinda hate to say this, but I haven’t done the best record keeping as i needed to. I haven’t really done a good job of keeping track of my yields, keeping track of how many pounds we harvest and all that. But moving forward, you know, that’d be something that, you know, as we start to spend even more money on our farming enterprise, we will definitely looked at having crop insurance.
Lindsey: Do many of the farmers around you who were impacted have crop insurance?
Davon: In my area we are still at the tobacco so we are still a tobacco producer sale. So a lot of those guys got wiped out completely. They have crop insurance, so that will definitely be some help, but crop insurance doesn’t pay for everything, you know, when you get a little further east than me getting more towards the coast, those guys are still flooded. So we lost millions of chickens in the state. A lot of hog that’s built over. And so it’s just been a disaster. Agriculture is our number one industry in this state. And the part of the hurricane that it did hit it is probably the largest agriculture part of the state. What are your five minute pigs are confinements again and you know, we still got soy beans in the field. Cotton is still in the field. They’re adequate and billions of dollars of airports a lot.
Lindsey: Yeah. Secretary of Purdue was in North Carolina yesterday, getting briefed on the situation. So some of the fields are still inundated, are still flooded. Obviously there’s been devastation to many of the livestock producers. Like what, what is the farm community asking for?
Davon: Well, I mean there’s still some people who were not even in our houses. Agriculture means a lot to this state and so agriculture and the community kind of rallied together, Barbara from our area and sucking, hey, if he down to farmers further eat it. So it’s really felt like it was a huge community effort to make sure these guys kind of get back on their feet. But you know, we had hurricane Matthew two years ago, so a lot of these people just get back on their feet and here came another hurricane. So it’s kinda one of those things where you get the farm back to normal and everything’s working right but here goes another storm.
Lindsey: During Matthew was the same part of the state impacted? Were there changes made after Matthew that have had any benefit during Florence?
Davon: Hurricane Matthew was a different type of storm. We didn’t have so much wind but we had a lot of water. We’re still in, a lot of things are still being constructed, you know, they’re trying to shore up a lot of, you know, river banks and things like that. But moving forward, I mean, I think a huge conversation that needs to be held as far as, you know, how do you prepare farms for storms and how do we kind of break ourselves because, you know, every time it seems like it’s that much more devastating. I know that they’ve been having conversations about, you know, how do we better prepare ourselves on a farm for these storms?
Lindsey: With the situation on livestock operations, I’ve been reading in the news about the lagoons overflowing and failing with breaches. What is the impact for other producers when those events occur?
Davon: Yeah. So I mean, obviously North Carolina is the second largest port in the tax rate that we have a lot of their parents. So that do you have a lot of weight. And when these lagoons breach, it contaminates water system. And so, it makes the water obviously non-drinkable. It’s obviously one of those things where if your downstream of that, I mean ramifications can be pretty hard. So that’s a big question that a lot of people are starting to have a conversation about, you know, are these farms in the best location? Is that the best way to produce animals when these cars are closer to the pope? And so these lagoons are, if you’ve ever seen one before, they’re pretty big. They’re normally already high as it is, and so when you get this much rain, they just fell over and down about water and have used that back, um, for, you know, the next one a year because obviously all that lake water pill,
Lindsey: I guess I’m just wondering what sort of balance do you see there? Like, the current way of raising these animals is not only putting communities at risk and other producers at risk, but also these farmers at risk, these business owners at risk. What is the conversation there? Like how is the farm community sort of balancing those concerns right now?
Davon: That’s a good question. It depends on what community you’re in. We try not to demonize the large, corporate farmers because they’re farmers just like I am. But I think its certainly important to have that conversation: is this the best way to raise animals?
Davon: You know when 5 million chickens die, that is probably an animal welfare concern, obviously. And the fact that diva Jane, she’s spilling over, we have to get to the point where we have the conversation where we are not demonizing these guys but we are trying to strategize in a way that we make farming better for our environment. And so you really start to see the effects. And I think now with this many chickens that have died, it’s not just a huge loss to that farmer, but it’s a sad story. And when you look at the corporate farm model as a person going to be best to get out there as a young farmer, definitely not mobile. But with a lot of these guys, they take things so personally, paid the personal, you know, it’s a lot of them either back the end of the day, their farms, so they won’t have these catastrophic events. But at the same time, if we have that many chickens in a chicken house and the water comes in here, you can only kind of brace yourself for the worst. And I think that, you know, at the state level, and at national level, we need to start having that conversation of number one, if you are going to do farming operation, where the best types of paper on it. Because placing them on the coast is probably not the best idea. And then number two, how do we, you know, when we do have a catastrophic event, how are we mitigating arrest and not just the farm but the people around the farm. Now we have two rivers, the Cape River and the Neuse river—two of the most polluted rivers in the country. And that’s because of the farms and the hog waste kind of flows into these water sheds all the time, so we do have these catastrophic weather events. As you look at the freezer of recovery. But after we get past with very far. I think that’s going to be a huge question of, you know, how do we do this in the future and you know, how do we best go about our farming practices?
Lindsey: Are some of those conversations coming and starting with and being led by any of the hog producers? And are you starting to hear some movement within the farmer community to talk about like how are we going to do this differently?
Davon: It’s hard. The conversation gets so heated so quickly, because you’re coming at their way of life. It’s hard to have a room full of farmers and say, you know what guys, ” What you all are doing is totally wrong.” Yeah and so it’s one of the things that I feel like on the sustainable side of the farming community, we have to do a better job of not vilifying these guys, so we can have the conversation. I think one reason why we’re not having the converstations is because it’s like you have two different sides of the fence. Once guy says, “everything you’re doing is wrong.” And the other guys saying, “well this is how I feed my family.” I do think these guys want to be able to do their farms better, you know, and they want to be able to brace themselves for any weather event. But I think as climate change effects North Carolina more and more, I think we need to really look inward to ourselves and figure out, you know, can we sustain these operations? Uh, how many bypass arm can you get them one last time. These farms may not exist if we keep doing this. You know because one thing about the land where we’re at is, it’s very sandy, so we flood pretty quickly. So it doesn’t take much rain for us to flood.
Lindsey: What does repair look like? So you have flooding in a house, you have all these dead animals that you have to dispose of one way or another. So you have to clean out the whole house, I guess.
Davon: Yes. So you have to obviously get the chickens out, most times they can burn them in an incinerator or they can bury ’em. Once you do have all the waste in there, you have to either get like a sawdust, buy materials to kind of absorb some of the water that’s in the house, so you can get up there and you know, take a step there and get all of the manure out, but it takes a lot of 18 wheelers to do that, you know.
Lindsey: 18 wheelers, you mean full of manure?
Davon: No, when the houses are wet, you have to soak up that moisture. So they use sawdust sometimes to soak up moisture.
Lindsey: Some of these farmers were tobacco farmers, right? There has been some shift, right? From tobacco to some of these confinement operations?
Davon: Some of these guys go from tobacco to poultry. There is a moratorium on hog houses, so there won’t be any new hog houses built. We are building more chicken houses, it seems like all the time in these eastern counties. And some of these counties are some of hte poorest counties in the state. It seems like a hurricane always hits the most poverty-stricken areas of North Carolina and when these areas can barely recover the first time, i mean at this point the conversation needs to be, “how can we support these communities better, with no reason they need to be more sustainable? My question i have for most of these counties is, “how many chicken houses can one county support, not from the standpoint of the people who work for them but from the standpoint of the environment?” You can only dump so much chicken litter on the field. The issue with chicken litter in the fan is the fan has a huge leaching factor to it, you know, in that war and that elite and I way. And your water system. So, it begs the question of are we even looking at that?
Lindsey: Does that leaching impact the groundwater?
Davon: In some parts, yes it does. It impacts your field. You know, and so when you are as a young farmer that reasonable for land, you have to be very careful. You have to think a lot of soil samples and figure out, you know, is this a field that has federally had manure put on it? Because if it does, you may have a high capacity of heavy metals and phosphorus in your soil.
Lindsey: Well, Davon, we’re going to be interested to know how these conversations evolve. It’s so complicated and important. It’s like is there a sustainable path there where you’re not compromising precious natural resources, consumer health, or like as you were talking about, the soil .There’s a lot at stake. Are people talking about continuing that conversation? Is there a community of farmers and advocates that are thinking about alternatives here and sort of like the change that’s necessary?
Davon: The conversations are being had. And I think that the impact is starting to be so severe that they have had, you know, new ways of doing things. I think the whole thing of turning the waste into a fuel source is I think really important. It’s going to be slow. I mean it’s not going to be overnight changes. I think the changes will come. It’s just going to take some time.
Lindsey: So what’s next for you on your farm? Do you have grapes left to sell after the storm?
Davon: Our grape season is pretty much over. We will probably harvest another 600 pounds of wine grapes that didn’t get blown off. But after that order, we’re pretty much done. I think its about 600 pounds we will do this weekend. And these will go to a cider maker for her to put in a, to make cider out of these. But after that, it’s pretty much over, our season is over. And so it’s kinda devastating. We normally don’t stop this early. It’s still pretty early in the season.
Lindsey: When is the typical end of your season?
Davon: Oh, we probably got till October, you know, the second week in October normally. You know, we’ve waited all these months for these grapes and now we don’t even have them. And so this is why, number one, I have an off the farm job. And number two, moving forward, we have to develop more income stream to be able to sustain our farm.
Lindsey: On the new farm, are you going to be growing grapes again and trying other crops as well?
Davon: Yeah so our plan is now is that we will start putting in grapes. We will start constructing the vineyard this fall and winter. I plan to do a blackberry. We’ll get sheep back on the farm and then we will look at going annual vegetable production, which will be a little new to me because I’ve never really run annual vegetables on a commercial scale and so we just have to be really, really thoughtful on crop selection and you know, how we market these products as well.
Lindsey: Is there a new farm? Is it nearby your old farm or are you staying in the Sandhills region?
Davon: Yup, I’m about 12 minutes away and the one reason for that is that that was the most affordable farm that I could buy. So that was like at $2,500 an acre and the land that I’m pulling out is like, you know, six to $10,000 an acre, which we couldn’t. We have to be able to take our run at farming and we had to kind of think a little differently on where we want to be.
Lindsey: And do you think on that operation, you’re going to be able to be resilient in the face of storms like this? Do you feel like it’s situated in a place that is at lower risk for flooding or is that something that you’re worried about?
Davon: Yeah, so actually this property has a higher risk of flooding, so that’s obviously not good. And I visited that property during the hurricane and yeah, we got to be really smart on how we do things.
Lindsey: Was it flooded?
Davon: Yeah, the main road going to the farm, you couldn’t get in. Even though I had a pretty big truck, I still couldn’t get in it. But the field was okay, but it is one of those things that when I was looking for land, I didn’t want a big field. I didn’t want any trees because of this whole risk of hurricanes. Now that’s kind of good and bad because in the vineyard you kinda need windbreaks on both sides of your vineyard to slow the wind down. Well, I had no wind-breaks obviously. So we’ll see. It’ll be interesting how we kind of face climate change head on, and we’ve been talking about that since the storm as a family on how do we maybe want to do things differently? How we may want to orientate our roads differently, you know, we’re even changing the way we wanna build our house. We’re raising our foundation and all these things that kinda occurred just because of this storm.
Lindsey: Wow. Well I guess in some ways it forces you to plan ahead.
Davon: It does.
New Speaker: There’s a lot of young farmers that are only able to buy land that is at greater risk of flood events and even in flood plains. Right? Because that’s where it’s less expensive, but man, it’s just like so vulnerable and more vulnerable these days too, because of that.
Davon: And I think the question is, “are we asking young farmers to do too much?”
Lindsey: Yes, clearly. Clearly, yes. But yeah, yeah.
Davon: America says “more farmers, we don’t have enough farmers,” but as America are we doing enough to get new farmers on the land? And I would say the answer to that is no. We’re estimating it’s been about $425, 000 and we’re under the age of 30. That is a huge risk for anybody. If this is what we’re asking farmers to do, at this rate how many young people are willing to spend close to half a million dollars on farming? I feel like, you know, as the agricultural community, we need to really ask ourselves, “what are we asking here?” and you know, depending on how this farm bill takes up, it doesn’t look good. I mean I hate to be a Debbie Downer, I really do. I just think, you know, at the rate that we need more farmers, we have to have a way to easily get them on the land. Definitely.
Lindsey: One of the things in this next farm bill–all of the fights are about these existing programs and snap benefits and just like status quo, status quo and not a whole lot on these new challenges and taking them seriously and helping deal with the cost of land and getting farmers on the land that they need to be climate resilient and dealing with issues of student debt and the like that make the situation so much worse. Davon, thank you so much for your time today.
Davon: No problem.
Lindsey: I know that you’re going to be part of the conversation, at least in North Carolina. Thank you so much for your time and wishing you the best of luck as you, I guess, clean up from this season and start your new operation. It’ll be exciting to hear about what’s next for you.
Davon: Thank you so much Lindsey, I appreciate it.
Lindsey: Davon, thank you so much for sharing with us today. We wish you best for the next season and I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen on your new land that you’re going to own. So exciting. If you like the show, please tell someone about it or you can also tell us what you think in iTunes, whether you like it or whether you don’t.
This show was recorded with a generous help of Radio Kingston and was edited by hand by Hannah Beal. We’ll see you next week.
And thank you to our podcast intern, Julie Davis!