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Hurricane Irene damaged tomatoes, other crops in Virginia

Aug 31, 2011, 9:40 a.m.
Sailors assigned to the base police department move debris from Hurricane Irene at one of the entrances to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach, VA, in this photo taken and released on August 28, 2011. REUTERS/Spencer R. Layne/U.S. Navy/Handout

By Matthew A. Ward

CHESAPEAKE, Va (Reuters) - Virginia's tomato crop took a beating during Hurricane Irene, and corn, cotton and tobacco crops also suffered damage, according to preliminary reports.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 acres of tomatoes in Virginia's Eastern Shore were partially flattened and swamped, said Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services board member Steve Sturgis.

The loss could result in short-term supply issues, he said. Virginia is the nation's third or fourth-largest tomato producer, depending on the season, and Sturgis said it was his understanding that tomato growers in Florida would not start picking their crop for another three weeks.

"It could adversely affect supply because the Florida crop is not ready yet," he said.

Three commercial growers suffered losses: Pacific Tomato Growers, Kuzzens Incorporated, and East Coast Tomato Growers and Packers.

"These tomatoes are grown on stakes sticking five, six foot into the air," Sturgis said. "So you can imagine, you've got these walls of tomatoes, and when the wind comes and pushes on the wall, it just snaps those stakes off."

Butch Nottingham, the department's marketing representative for eastern Virginia, said the Eastern Shore harvest was "two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through" before Irene raked up the Atlantic coast on Saturday.

"I think it's a little early to tell just how much damage has been done," he said.

Donna Johnson, president of the Virginia Agribusiness Council, said the corn that was still in the field before the storm incurred "a lot of damage" and would be difficult to harvest while flattened.

The cotton crop will be "below average," soybeans are "probably okay" and tobacco took a hit in some places, she said.

Power outages were impeding producers' ability to dry and process crops, she said.

Virginia Cotton Board program director Gail Milteer said 95 percent of the 115,095 acres of cotton planted in Virginia this year have been damaged.

She could not put a dollar figure on the cotton loss statewide, but said Southampton County, Virginia's largest cotton producer with 46,720 acres, was claiming a $6.7 million loss.

"The greatest damage to our crops was along the I-95 corridor east, along the Virginia-North Carolina state line," she said, noting that area received seven to 16 inches of rain within 24 hours.

On the bright side, Dell Cotton, executive secretary for the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, said Hurricane Irene had benefited peanuts.

"There may be some areas where it was a little bit too much rain, but we were very dry before this came," he said, adding sunshine in coming days would guard against fungal diseases.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)

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