Texas Ranchers, Farmers Struggling After Ike

By: AP
By: AP

Her boots, jeans and sweat shirt splattered with mud, Janet Lagow Lewis stretched barbed wire across metal posts, rebuilding a portion of her 38 miles of fencing that Hurricane Ike washed away.

The fencing is crucial if Lagow Lewis, her husband, Chip, and her twin sister, Jean Lagow, are to resume raising cattle on this 4,400-acre stretch of land in Chambers County. Without it, the 300 or so cattle that managed to survive Ike's 18- to 20-foot storm surge would roam free.

Until the job's done, they must pay thousands of dollars to keep and feed their cattle on land they've leased nearby.

They also face another problem: Much of the vegetation, including grass the cattle normally graze on in the winter, was killed by the salty deposits left by the storm surge. Rain will eventually dissolve the salt from the soil, but little has fallen since Ike came ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13.

"It's not so much the work, you just hope financially you can keep on going and that once you get through with it all you hope you still have enough money," said Lagow Lewis, 59.

Many other ranchers and farmers face similar problems in southeast Texas. They're wondering whether the agricultural losses caused by Ike - estimated to be more than $960 million - could force them out of business.

More than half a million acres of land was flooded by Ike's storm surge, devastating many cattle ranchers and rice farmers, the two main agricultural producers in the region.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 animals - mostly cattle but also horses, pigs and chickens - were killed by the storm surge, said Monty Dozier, the south region program director for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Cattle losses are estimated by the extension service at $13.3 million. Other losses include $351 million to the lumber industry, $92.6 million in lost business activity, $15 million in lost equipment and buildings, and $11 million in rice crops.

"It will be a long road to recovery that will be difficult for many producers," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said.

An additional 12,000 cattle were displaced by the storm because Ike wiped away an estimated 1,500 miles of fencing, costing as much as $10,000 a mile to replace.

Tyler Fitzgerald, an extension service agent in Chambers County, said it could be anywhere from six months to four years before the ground recovers from the salt left by the surge.

Ranch and farmland, once vibrant and green, is now brown and brittle. Much of the debris left by Ike still litters fields.

Many ranchers such as Bill White, who lost 200 cows and 200 calves out of 3,500 head of cattle, had to ship those that survived to other parts of the state where they could graze for the winter.

He figures the tab to ship, feed and store his cattle - and the cost of replacing fencing, barns and equipment - could ultimately reach $1.5 million.

"We've been in business for 189 years. I don't know if I'll be in business a year from now," said White, a sixth-generation cattle rancher who owns 11,000 acres and leases 50,000 more in Chambers County and adjacent Jefferson County. "I'm going to do everything I can to make it work."

Fitzgerald said most farmers and ranchers survive on loans.

"If you have any losses, it's hard to go to the bank and get a loan for next year when you can't pay this year's loan off," he said.

Staples said the federal government has approved more than $100 million for disaster recovery assistance. But that money is not only for Ike victims, but also for those affected by this summer's Midwest floods and Hurricane Dolly in south Texas. Texas' total will be about $13.7 million.

"That is a drop in the bucket compared to the total devastation suffered by Texas agriculture," Staples said.

Private groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Farmers International and Alpha Zeta, the oldest collegiate society for agriculture, are raising money to help ranchers and farmers with hay and feed or providing volunteer labor to help rebuild fences.

Last week, 17 college students helped Lagow Lewis and her family rebuild some of their fencing.

"These farmers are really hurting," said Jesse Dotterer, 25, of Mansfield, Ohio, who just got his master's degree in agricultural economics.

Lagow Lewis was grateful for their help and vowed to survive her financial difficulties.

The land has "been in the family for so long and it's just something you've grown to love and it's a part of who you are," she said. "You go down fighting, whatever it takes to make it."

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