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Like the rest of the nation, the U.S. agricultural industry watched in disbelief as hurricanes Katrina and Rita attacked the Gulf Coast. With winds measured at 120 mph and water surges as high as 20 feet, some experts are calling the combined hurricanes the worst disaster to ever strike the U.S.

This also may be one of the worst disasters to ever strike the U.S. agriculture industry. USDA Secretary Mike Johanns announced an estimated $900 million in losses for U.S. agricultural production from Hurricane Katrina alone, and experts in affected regions are reporting that some livestock herds have been cut in half and some fields may never again be suitable for crops. Nationwide, producers have felt the effects of both hurricanes, with substantially higher fuel prices raising transportation costs and lowering commodity prices.

Thankfully, many committed to the U.S. ag industry have seen and felt the great short and long term needs of the industry and stepped up to help. Currently, donations from the ag industry have exceeded $25 million in monetary funding and uncounted millions of dollars in food, medical aid, and long-term reconstruction and development supplies.

Whether it is cattleman helping cattleman, farmer helping farmer, or older generations helping younger generations, the way of the industry is ag helping ag to ensure the continued growth and sustainability of its people and its industry.


In rural parts of Louisiana, Hurricane Rita hit hard. Roughly 175,000 head of cattle were stranded without hay or fresh water for two weeks after the storm hit.

Tommy Shields, a nearby extension specialist from Lake Charles, La., called the damage devastating, reporting that cattle were "stranded on any piece of dry land they can find," and long-term needs would include hay, fencing supplies, and portable fence panels.

Such reports were common throughout rural areas and small towns in the Gulf Coast areas hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But thankfully, so was the help that farmers and ranchers received from their fellow cattlemen and industry organizations.

Within days of Hurricane Katrina, the National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA), state beef councils and state cattlemen's associations made donations to traditional relief agencies. The NCBA also called on all agricultural producers to contribute to short and long-term recovery efforts of farm and ranch families. The call and the support grew in response to Hurricane Rita and the awareness that the needs of cattleman and their families will continue well into the future.

"It is very important that all citizens contribute to the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other relief agencies as generously as they can," says Jim McAdams, a Texas rancher and president of NCBA. "But cattlemen also naturally want to help their fellow farmers and ranchers, and storm victims located in rural areas of the Gulf Cost Region. NCBA and its state affiliates are coordinating efforts to help make that happen."

Coordinated efforts and donations from the cattlemen are numerous, including Missouri-based Heartland Farm sending 20,000 cans of cooked ground beef and canned stew to Salvation Army feeding operations in Biloxi and Jackson, Miss.; the Seattle-based Oberto Sausage Company sold 288,000, one-ounce jerky packets to the NCBA at cost and donated the shipping; and generous farm and ranch families from as far away as California offering through the NCBA to open up their homes as temporary housing for those in need.

"NCBA serves as a valuable national focal point for coordinating and directing aid," McAdams said. "But I really can't say enough about the efforts of our state beef councils and state cattlemen's associations.

While the outpourings from the cattle industry have been great, NCBA Chief Executive Officer Terry Stokes is calling on cattlemen across the nation to continue their generosity and remember that hurricane victims are still in great need of assistance in southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

"Neighbor helping neighbor is the cattlemen's way," says Stokes. "We've got a long road to recovery on the Gulf Coast, and it's time for all of us to step up and help in any way we can."

For J. Wesley Graham, an agriscience teacher at Purvis High School in Southern Lamar County, Miss., the images of destruction that Hurricane Katrina brought to his town will be etched in his mind for ever.

"We were greatly affected," wrote Graham in a letter to the National FFA just days after the hurricane hit. "My agriculture classroom and shop were destroyed. Our fish hut making area was in the shop ... Tuesday after the storm passed, I made it to the shop and just stood there in disbelief. All that we had worked so hard to build in the three years I have taught was gone. Students were very upset. We found our FFA banner and the scrapbook and laid them out to dry. Now all we can do is move on and try to put this behind us. We will rebuild, we will survive ... don't count us out though - we will be BACK."

Graham's positive attitude is reflective of the attitude the entire National FFA is bringing to hurricane recovery efforts.

Within days of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast, National FFA President Jackie Mundt announced the Seeds of Hope fundraising effort, designed to rebuild agricultural education and FFA programs in Gulf states hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. Partnering with Team Ag Ed, the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) and the National Council for Agricultural Education, FFA plans to use Seeds of Hope to fund a sustained, long-term rebuilding effort to put agricultural education programs and FFA chapters back on their feet in the shortest time possible.

At the time of writing, an estimated 120 FFA chapters and schools, 5,000 students and their families, and about 150 agricultural education teachers have experienced severe damage or total destruction to their homes, facilities and school projects, including human and personal property loss.

"The National FFA Organization and agricultural education community are mobilizing relief efforts across the nation to help our people along the Gulf Coast, and we have seen a marvelous outpouring of generosity, initiative and assistance," said Dr. Larry D. Case, national FFA advisor. "We want to fast forward to the future through a sustained effort to rebuild our programs and restore educational opportunities to students."

Gulf Coast farmers devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are starting on the long road to recovery, but many farmers are finding that their problems are just beginning.

Two groups helping farmers and ranchers get back on their feet are the California Farm Bureau (CFBF) and the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau (SBCFB). Together they are hoping to return a little bit of "southern comfort" to the lives of their fellow farmers and ranchers.

The CFBF's Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee put its support behind the efforts of the SBCFB, which launched an ambitious project called "Operation Southern Comfort." The program concentrates on cash donations that will be distributed to farm families identified by Farm Bureau's in Louisiana, Missippi and Texas.

Teri Bontrager, the SBCFB executive director, has been in contact with members of the Missippi and Louisiana State Farm Bureaus. "Every facet of their agricultural industry has been affected, from livestock producers who have lost beef cattle and feed to cotton farmers who have lost 70 to 80 percent of their crop; and from hardwood timber farmers who have lost trees and infrastructure, and horticulturists who have lost growing facilities to the poultry farmers who are fighting to save what is left of their flocks."

Bontrager describes "Operation Southern Comfort" as a farmer-to-farm project that will reach out to young farmers, in their twenties, who often work their farms and have second jobs to pay the interest on notes for their farm enterprises. While the Bureau is helping with immediate needs through its ongoing relationship with Second Harvest, Operation Southern Comfort is designed to help with other long term needs.

"Once the Farm Bureaus in Louisiana and Mississippi send us the growing lists of families in need, we will get to work right away determining how many people we can send monies to," says Bontrager. "We are hoping to initially send $1,000 checks, and then to send additional monies to the same families around the holidays so that they will able to celebrate with their families and have a touch of normalcy. The memo line of a check I received really sums up our goal: to give a ray of sunshine to our fellow farmers."

Bontrager knows that donations often slow after an initial crises or a holiday. She is encouraging people to follow the advice she heard at a local grower meeting.
"The farm families along the Gulf Coast and in the Delta are going to need our help for a long time. The best thing to do is to treat your donation like a tithe for your church. We need ongoing donations to give true comfort to our friends in the South."

Sabrina Hickel is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Mo., and can be reached at 314/918-0504 or at:

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