Bad, bad news for the farmers -- and probably bad news for smokers, too:
Reporting from Craven County, N.C.— Before Hurricane Irene smacked his tender tobacco plants sideways, David Parker was headed for a terrific crop, maybe his best in 32 years of farming.
Now, as Parker rushes to save a few acres of shredded leaves before they rot on the dying stalks, the math looks different.
"I've never had a year I didn't make money farming, but I think this will be the one that gets us there," he said last week, driving up a dirt road between a beaten-down cotton field and a 17-acre patch of dejected-looking tobacco.
The green-gold tobacco leaves — which normally this time of year would be spread wide, waiting to be plucked, dried at a careful pace and taken to market — were hanging straight down, shriveled, with the stalks leaning the way that the wind had pushed them.
That's what this agricultural disaster looks like: wilted leaves, angled stalks, a tangle of cotton plants with fat bolls that had looked unusually promising but now might not open. Subtle stuff to everyone but the hundreds of farmers who, like Brown, now face what may be their worst losses ever.
"That's not vacation cottages. It's these people's whole way of making a living, and the impact will spread throughout all the people and businesses that rely on farmers," said Graham Boyd, executive vice president of the Tobacco Growers Assn. of North Carolina. "It's a tragedy, just terrible, terrible stuff."
State and federal officials say it will be weeks before the full extent of the farm losses are known, but the effect on tobacco, which is grown in much of the area where the storm punched hardest, is extensive.