Texas farmers struggle after Ike

ANAHUAC, TX 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 between Anahuac and Winnie 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. Rainfall will eventually dissolve the salt from the soil, but little has fallen since Ike came ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13 and the next several months are expected to be dry also.

"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, who also worked as a science teacher for 29 years before retiring five years ago.

Lagow Lewis is not alone. Many other ranchers and farmers in southeast Texas are facing the same problems and wonder 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 land, mainly in Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties, 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," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

Another 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, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service agent in Chambers County, said Ike caused long-term devastation to the crop and grazing land and it could be anywhere from six months to four years before the ground recovers from the salt left by the surge.

Ranch and farm land in the affected counties, once vibrant and green, is now brown and brittle. Also, much of the debris left by Ike still litters many fields.

Many ranchers like Bill White, who lost 200 cows and another 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.

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

Standing near splintered pens that once held about 1,000 cattle, White was cautiously optimistic about his future. He owns 11,000 acres and leases another 50,000 in Chambers County and adjacent Jefferson County.

"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. "I'm going to do everything I can to make it work. I think I can do it."

Chip Lewis said selling cattle isn't an option for many ranchers because they would be sold at a loss and can't be easily replaced later. It takes years to breed animals that can adapt to conditions in this part of the state.

As if she were talking about a son or daughter, Jean Lagow fondly recalled a resilient Hereford bull named Humpty Dumpty who had 66 daughters and all but one survived the hurricane.

"I was really proud of that. So when people say, 'Sell and start up again,' I say no," she said. "That's Humpty Dumpty genetics. You can't find that and I love those cattle."

Fitzgerald said most farmers and ranchers aren't rich and survive each year on loans they get.

"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.

But Jean Lagow said her only hope of making it is securing another loan after Christmas.

"I'm to the bottom," said Lagow, a retired teacher like her sister.

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," he said. "There could be additional funds down the road."

John Adams, with the Fellowship of Christian Farmers International, said that is not enough money to help many ranchers and farmers who are on the edge of bankruptcy.

"The rancher may get a little assistance from (the government) but when you compare the amount of assistance compared to their losses, it's pennies on the dollar," he said.

Private groups like 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 from around the country volunteered to help Lagow Lewis and her family rebuild some of their fencing, saying farmers and ranchers affected by the storm aren't getting the attention they need.

"These farmers are really hurting," said Jesse Dotterer, a 25-year-old from 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. You go down fighting, whatever it takes to make it."

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