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Farm Losses After Hurricane Florence


Among the casualties of Hurricane Florence was North Carolina's farms. State officials estimate the crop damage and livestock losses caused by the storm and flooding will be over a billion dollars. About 15 percent of those losses were to sweet potato crops. And it's not just farmers who are hurting; there are also the laborers. NPR's Nurith Aizenman brings us this from a sweet potato farm near the town of Evergreen.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The field has been plowed into long furrows of black earth. Peeking through the soil are dusty orange sweet potatoes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Young men carrying red buckets move through the rows in a sort of walking crouch, scooping up sweet potatoes and dropping them in. The pay is 50 cents a bucket on top of an hourly wage.

FABIAN LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Fabian Lopez (ph) carries his haul to a waiting truck. He's from the Mexican state of Chiapas. Most of the money he makes here, he sends there to his family.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Wife and three kids.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: He picks up a sweet potato. It's modeled and gooey.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Rotten, he says.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: One of the farm's owners, George Wooten (ph), stops by for a look.

GEORGE WOOTEN: I would say we probably have a 10 to 15 percent loss.

AIZENMAN: Wooten doesn't have crop insurance - no good programs for sweet potatoes, he says. And by this stage in the growing cycle, he's already poured almost his entire investment into the crop.

WOOTEN: So it's a pretty big deal for you to get hit on the end of it.

AIZENMAN: Couldn't have happened at a worse time.

WOOTEN: Not really (laughter).

AIZENMAN: But Wooten says there could be even more losses coming because of another problem. There are not enough farm workers around to pull the remaining crop out in time. This crew's leader is Catalina Galaviz (ph), a middle-aged woman with a white towel on her head to shield against a plague of mosquitoes.

CATALINA GALAVIZ: Lot of mosquitoes - yes, ma'am.

AIZENMAN: Farm owners contract with crew leaders like Galaviz to get their sweet potatoes out of the ground. It's up to Galaviz to use that payment to hire as many people as she sees fit to do the work, then pocket whatever's left over. Normally, she brings in 45, 50, even 60 workers. But today...

GALAVIZ: Today, I had 11. It's a little crew.

AIZENMAN: Galaviz shakes her head. How are we going to make any money today?

GALAVIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: I'm worried, she says in Spanish.

GALAVIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Galaviz is so short-staffed because most of the pickers she recruits are migrant workers from her native Mexico traveling a circuit through U.S. states - Michigan to pick the blueberries, Florida for the tomatoes, North Carolina for tobacco crop and, every September, for the sweet potato. But when the storm hit, the workers Galaviz had just assembled for this fall's crew...

GALAVIZ: (Through interpreter) They lost their possessions. The houses they rented were flooded. And they were desperate after going two weeks without a paycheck.

AIZENMAN: By last Monday, most of the workers had decided to move on, try their luck in Florida with the tomato harvest.

Galaviz leans in to offer one of the remaining workers advice on how to fill his bucket faster.

GALAVIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Twenty-four years ago, she was a young migrant just like him. She came with her husband and daughters, the youngest then still a baby. But bit by bit, they worked their way up, learned English, started putting together their own crews. Six years ago, they were ready to make North Carolina their full-time base, put down roots on a 3-acre property with a small house. Galaviz remembers sitting at a picnic table in her yard and feeling a sense of relief wash over her.

GALAVIZ: (Through interpreter) To look around me and say to myself, we can feel OK now. We have a place to grow old, a place nobody can kick us out of.

AIZENMAN: Now they're thinking they'll need to make sacrifices. They probably won't take their annual winter trip to Mexico to check on their parents and siblings. And Galaviz says her husband has been floating an even more drastic option.

GALAVIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: After all these years, they might need to become migrants again, go to other states to put together crews. It feels like such a step back, she says to her husband.

GALAVIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Let's wait just a little longer, she tells him, see how things go.

GALAVIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Evergreen, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "5 MIN CALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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