The Impact of Natural Disasters on US Agriculture

From 1980 to 2016, the US suffered 203 major natural disasters with individual damage costs of $1 billion or more (includes CPI adjustments for cost changes over time). More than $1.1 trillion of damage was caused in total. These figures are not confined to agricultural loss, but do show the enormity of the problem. And the events are becoming more frequent.

It’s evident that natural disasters bring lots of damage to farmers and their land. The land suffers in various ways: pollution of water bodies, loss of harvest, vulnerability to crop disease, and destruction of farming infrastructure. Of course, these effects aren’t only short-term; it takes time to return the land and infrastructure to a workable state.

To give you an idea how catastrophic these events are to US farming, it’s worth studying a couple of them:

Western Drought, 2015

The Western Drought of 2015 affected numerous western states and had a particularly prolonged effect on California. Vast areas of farmland were left fallow in the expectation of loss and excessive water was needed to protect existing agricultural stock. In California, the drought had been building for 4 years and cost $2.7 billion that year as well as triggering 18,500 job losses.

Hurricane Matthew, 2016

Hurricane Matthew became a Category 5 storm as it ferociously traversed the Atlantic. Winds of up to 160 mph threatened everything in its path. Having wreaked havoc and loss of life in the Caribbean, it hurtled its way towards the United States. Farmers in North and South Carolina’s cotton-growing areas raced to bring in their crops, threatened by up to 15 inches of possible rain. Agricultural equipment was tied down. Livestock was moved.

Despite these hasty preparations, Hurricane Matthew caused billions of dollars’ worth of crop damage. Flooded fields could not be harvested because floodwater contaminated crops. Heavy rainfall and strong winds also took their toll, causing massive losses in yield. Once the hurricane had passed, farmers waited weeks for the ground to dry before they could start working the land again. Many had personally lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.


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