What’s Happening on the Farm: Recovering from Hurricane Matthew at Cherry Research Farm

by | Feb 1, 2017

Cherry Research Farm staff use a boat to access the farm

Members of the Cherry Research Farm staff had to use boats to reach the flooded property following Hurricane Matthew.

Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Periodically, we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.

There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we look at the lasting effects of Hurricane Matthew on livestock, crops, infrastructure and research at Cherry Research Farm in Goldsboro.

On Oct. 8, 2016, a Category 1 hurricane dumped more than 15 inches of rain in Goldsboro before moving on. The flooding matched and, in some cases, surpassed that caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which at the time was considered a 500-year flooding event.

Andy Meier, station superintendent for Cherry Research Farm, gives an overview below:

Can you tell us how Hurricane Matthew impacted the station?

Cherry Research Farm experienced significant flooding. Only three of the 45 buildings on the more-than-2,000-acre property were out of water. Before the storm hit, we moved livestock to higher ground and after the storm, the livestock could only be reached by boat. It was the beginning of the dairy calving season and about halfway through farrowing season. During the event we had about 40 animals born at the station.

Crops were not spared. About 60 percent of the soybean crop was a total loss. Half the cotton crop was destroyed and a vast majority of the baled hay was also a total loss. The corn was in the bin, and the floor that holds corn sits off the ground about 24-25 inches. Water came close but didn’t reach the corn.

I know you were grateful for the outpouring of support the station received. Can you tell us a little about that?

The other Research Stations contributed meals, supplies, staff and boats during and after the flood. We couldn’t have done it without them. We also had assistance from other NCDA&CS divisions. Purchasing really helped us out when it came to the big item purchases critical to operations, like boats. The N.C. Forest service spent more than three days airlifting feed and hay to stranded animals. N.C. State provided a meal and (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) Dean Richard Linton and several of his team either visited or called asking how they could help. N.C. A&T University provided meals and helped us empty the buildings that were flooded. The Center for Environmental Farming Systems helped with labor, meals and started a fund to help with recovery efforts. Our Research Stations Division director, Sandy Stewart, stayed right with us for more than half of the eight days when we could not reach our livestock by trucks. The commitment of the Cherry Farm staff, NCDA&CS, NCSU, NCA&T and many other individuals and agencies was evident, and the teamwork across all of these partners led to a successful response to this emergency.

Anyone who lived in Eastern North Carolina in 1999 knew the devastation caused when Hurricane Floyd came through. In terms of flooding and damage at the research station, how did Hurricane Mathew compare to Hurricane Floyd?

Flooding for Matthew was worse than ’99 (Floyd). The water was 2 feet higher at the station and slower to leave. Both hurricanes were horrible events. During and immediately after the flood, livestock took priority. It was calving season, so feed and making sure the animals were secure was the number one concern.

Now, three months later, we are just finally getting to the general type of things you have to do after a flood. Sand needs to be cleared out of ditches, levee repair and clean-up of debris along the borders of the fields that was left when the waters receded. We have seven weeks to work before planting season and it will be a busy time.

However, Floyd prepared us for Mathew. We knew where to stage equipment, what critical equipment would be needed. And the best way to assemble critical staff. We knew our roles in the disaster and it helped with recovery.

As for planning for next time, I hope that I’ll be long retired by then. Two floods of this magnitude is enough. I do know we need to move some critical infrastructure out of the flood plain, and find a good way to reach the livestock units besides a boat.

How did the flooding impact ongoing research at the station?

We have a lot of different types of research at the station. Some of the trials were not impacted. Others, like ongoing research on soil, it’s too early to know the impact. Data couldn’t be collected for 50 acres of different cotton trials.

When something like this happens, researchers just have to mark ‘no data collected’ for the year. It is not ideal, especially for research that is receiving outside funding. The worst possible long-term impact would be to lose funding for these trials.

However, there is good news, most of these are replicated trials. Which means the same research is ongoing at another research station at the same time. Even if your trial at Goldsboro was flooded, you can still collect information at Clayton, or at another station. The strength of our research system is that a critical event doesn’t stop a program.

What are the next steps for recovery?

Our main offices have been approved for demolition. It flooded during Hurricane Floyd, too. The Legislature also approved $250,000 for levee repair. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Division of Soil and Water Conservation are looking for a solution. There are four breaches in the levee, and no easy fixes. The challenge this growing season will be not having the levees fixed. Hard summer rains won’t be able to drain as effectively.

We are optimistic about this planting season. But then again, all farmers are optimistic about growing season.