Hurricane Rita’s bill for dairy farmers still being tabulated

December 1, 2007

With Southeast dairy farmers still reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her sister, Hurricane Rita, tore through some of the same Gulf states this past weekend, causing electrical outages and property damage. The full impact is currently being assessed by agricultural businesses like the dairy farmer-owned cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. (DFA).

DFA, a milk-marketing cooperative with Southeast Area operations in Knoxville, Tenn., markets milk for many dairy farm families in the region (Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) affected by Hurricane Katrina. DFA leaders say, however, that Hurricane Rita didn’t play quite as rough as her sister, but – over the weekend – she disrupted milk production and caused anxiety, flooding and some structural damage on member farms in Louisiana and east Texas.

“The number of dairy farmers affected by Rita were, thankfully, much lower than Katrina,” says Jim Hahn, chief operating officer of the Southeast Area of Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. (DFA). “However, this is really tough stuff for our dairy farm families – some who had to ride out two hurricanes within weeks of each other. We estimate that approximately 35 DFA dairy farmer-members in the southeast were or are still out of electricity, primarily in Louisiana. We also know that several dairy farmer-members had significant structural damage in southern Louisiana.”

When Rita was downgraded from a Category 5 to a Category 3 hurricane, it also changed directions, sparing many DFA members in Texas. According to David Jones, chief operating officer for DFA’s Southwest Area based in Grapevine, Texas, “We’ve contacted our DFA members who reside in east Texas. They are fine.”

DFA’s butter processing plant in Winnsboro, Texas, lost power for nearly 24 hours, but it was spared any building damage and was operational by the Sunday following the storm. DFA’s Schulenburg, Texas facility, which makes cheese, was completely spared.

Although Rita’s damages to dairy farm operations probably won’t reach the level of economic havoc caused by Katrina, DFA’s officials say the hurricane’s effect will add to the financial pain already being felt by Katrina-stressed dairy farmers. In a previous news release, DFA estimated that Katrina’s damages to more than 300 DFA dairy farmer members could top $40 million.

“In the end, the most important news is that DFA’s dairy farmer and employee families are safe,” says Hahn. “But there is no getting around the fact that Rita caused amazing losses to the communities she hit. As a dairy cooperative, we’re focused on helping our farm families recover. What made Rita different is that, prior to the storm, staff members in DFA’s Southeast and Southwest areas were able to contact dairy farmers to share what we learned from Katrina and to provide some recommendations in dealing with Rita. Most of our farmers either had generators to run their milking systems or we were able to provide them with generators before or soon after the storm.”

Randy Mooney, dairy farmer leader and chairman for DFA’s Southeast Area Council, commended dairy farmers, staff, haulers, and other farm organizations for working together to take quick, pro-active action. Although it’s too soon to estimate damages, Mooney says that, within a day of the storm, nearly all milk in the region was being picked up.
“One thing I can say is, these hurricanes have taught us three major lessons – first, you can’t be too prepared; second, don’t take electricity for granted; and third, cooperation counts. In rural America, surviving a disaster is all about people and their organizations working together,” says Mooney, a dairy farmer in Rogersville, Mo.