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Family Farmers Bear the Brunt of Climate Crisis and Katrina

PERKINSTON, Miss. -- David Fazio's dairy farm rises like an oasis from the wind-shattered woods. Fields of green ryegrass, shade oak trees, and pink and red magnolias bespeak order amid the twisted, gray wilderness wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

Even here, 30 miles north of Mississippi's Gulf Coast, the lives of things that grow and sprout -- and of the people who tend them -- were not spared by the hurricane.

Among Fazio's neighbors, 14 of 20 dairy farmers have abandoned their herds and homesteads. Fazio himself lost 110 of 180 cows after the Aug. 29 storm, which did $125,000 damage to all four structures and the family farmhouse on his 125-acre plot -- equal to five years' earnings.

After smashing 90 miles of seabed and filling it with jagged debris, Katrina roared north along Interstate 59 and spawned sustained winds of 120 mph as far as 80 miles inland. In that wedge of devastation, boats and processing plants were smashed. Wood-plank hay barns and tin-roofed dairy sheds were shredded. And this region's stoic fishermen and farmers became the forgotten victims of the storm, lost in the misery of metropolitan New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.

Around small towns such as Petal and Laurel, as well as the coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Pearl River, scores of small farmers who normally would be harvesting blueberries, greens, squash, bell peppers and fresh cut flowers through the mild winter are idle because buyers from New Orleans farmers markets and Mississippi casino restaurants were blown away.

Across timber-rich southern Mississippi, the storm blew down or made impossible to machine harvest about $1 billion in old-growth hardwood and pine forest, wiping out wealth for 60,000 landowners that took generations to build. At Gulf of Mexico lookouts such as Point Cadet in Biloxi, 60 seafood processing and operations centers, and 500 shrimp boats employing 4,300 people, were knocked out, crippling an $800 million industry.

"It was a lot of equity, and people's fortunes, that were just taken away in one 12-hour period," said Joe Sanderson, chairman and chief executive of Sanderson Farms Inc., who reported Katrina's agriculture and marine impacts on a commission set up by Gov. Haley Barbour (R). Invoking the memory of a 1969 hurricane, he said: "The coast had Camille before, but this was something completely different for the inland counties. . . . Camille was terrible, but this was many times worse."

All told, Mississippi's agriculture, forestry and marine industries -- which account for one-third of the jobs and economic product of this unwealthy state -- lost more than $10 billion.

Poultry growers were mostly insured, and cotton-rich Delta farmers dodged Katrina's winds. But nonindustrial tree farmers -- who hold 69 percent of the state's timber acreage -- received just $400 million from Congress, a fraction of their losses.

Offshore, Katrina turned sea lanes and rich fishing grounds in the Mississippi Sound into minefields. Visible at low tide in aerial photographs, the wreckage of thousands of cars, chunks of homes and buildings, even soda machines, threaten to rip hulls and nets come the start of fishing season, June 1.

Many experts say the industry may never recover, as land prices rise and wharves and canneries here go the way of those that used to dot the Chesapeake and California's Monterey Bay.

"It's like a way of life that has a possibility of disappearing down there, and my memories of the coast for 50 years -- and for some of the people down there, much longer than that -- has a potential to disappear. That would be a shame," Sanderson said.

Ironically, old-time fishers who sell pearly six-inch blue crabs and palm-size shrimp from roadside trucks say that fishing has never been better, because the storm pushed wildlife closer to shore. But marine biologist LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, a federally funded research and education program, said the declining shrimp and oyster fisheries are doomed unless money is found to clean and restore the beds and estuaries where the creatures reproduce. That will require as much as $7 billion, according to recommendations by Barbour's commission.

Likewise, in the peculiar long-term husbandry of living resources, sawmills that are glutted with downed timber now -- depressing prices to bitterly low levels for producers -- will not be able to compete for years to come as local old-growth timber becomes rarer.

Ben F. Burkett, 54, whose family has farmed near Hattiesburg since 1886, has more immediate concerns. His small cooperative has 38 members, of whom about 20 are still actively farming. But with their coastal distributors no longer picking up truckloads of watermelon, squash, spinach and kale each week, no money is coming in. Four members speak of quitting.

The kind of man who chuckles when the conversation turns sad, Burkett notes that friends whose 401(k) plans were timberland saw acreage worth $1 million reduced to $150,000, and are rushing to haul out twisted wood before it turns wormy on the thawing ground.

Burkett's grandfather planted 19 pecan trees, but "Katrina got all of them," he said. "It's 10 or 12 years before you can pick a pecan," Burkett said. "I'll plant 40 or 50, but I'm planting them for my daughter, or my granddaughter."

Fazio's herd of Holstein cows is the cruelest measure of his lost wealth, productivity and credit-worthiness. He had pledged 40 cows as collateral to expand his farm six months before the storm.

But dairy cows that produce 70 pounds of milk a day need to be milked regularly. When Katrina cut electrical power, dairies turned to tractor-run generators. But when diesel fuel ran out about 20 days later, buyers came by, purchasing herds for a pittance as farmers sold to avoid sending wasted cattle to slaughter, Fazio said.

Standing next to the farmhouse he was raised in, which he may not rebuild, and waiting for his son to herd his remaining head up the hill for afternoon milking, Fazio, 53, looked at the wreckage of his red and green milking shed, equipment shed and hay barn.

"I need help to repair my barns. I can't afford to build a $35,000 hay barn," he said plaintively. "We've had very little assistance on anything. . . . It may be coming down the pipeline, but it's not here a drop."

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