'One hit after the next': Winter storms devastate Rapides Parish plant nurseries
True storm toll for plant nursery industry might not be known for weeks
Plant nursery businesses in Rapides Parish were jolted again during the back-to-back winter storms, heaping more misfortune on an industry already suffering because of the pandemic and a busy hurricane season.
Greenhouses have collapsed, and plants have frozen at nurseries in Forest Hill and surrounding areas of the parish. While the extent of the damage remains to be uncovered, owners already know it's a devastating loss just weeks before the start of spring.
"It’s just been kind of one hit after the next in our community," said Samantha Young, one of the owners of the family-owned Doug Young Nursery LLC in Forest Hill.
The nursery sells to the public, but also is a wholesaler that ships across the country.
Earlier this week, a Doug Young employee arrived at 6 a.m. to check on plants. Three minutes later, he watched as the business' largest greenhouse began to collapse.
It was the huge heated greenhouse with color — spring annuals, perennials, hanging baskets, subtropical and tropical plants. Young said the collapse wiped out several hundred thousand plants. What wasn't crushed later froze.
"If you’ve ever been to our nursery, that’s where everybody goes," she said. "This year it was chock-a-block full."
The nursery probably lost 20 other greenhouses at its three locations, said Young. Conditions are still too dangerous to do a complete assessment, and it could take several weeks before they know the full extent of the damage.
But what she's seen so far isn't encouraging. She called this latest blow, after the COVID-19 pandemic and this past summer's hurricanes, "disheartening" for the nursery and the community.
She called the nursery a livelihood, not just a business. Employees are family, she said.
"My employees are just as upset as I am, and that doesn’t always happen."
Young said she's talked to other nursery owners, and everyone is reporting damage.
"It makes the hurricane not look so bad," she said.
State commissioner of agriculture and forestry Mike Strain said it's imperative that owners document damages now.
He said his department is reaching out to field representatives and the LSU AgCenter to get a better assessment across the state even as below-freezing temperatures are forecast through Saturday.
He stressed that producers should document their damages through photos, videos and other means — purchase, production and vaccination records, bank or loan documents and third-party certifications.
Gov. John Bel Edwards asked President Joe Biden for a federal disaster declaration, which Biden approved on Thursday.
A separate disaster declaration regarding agriculture and livestock losses hasn't been declared yet, but proof of damages will be "vital" for that or for insurance claims, Strain said.
Jim Clinton, the president and CEO of the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA), said a disaster like this will ripple locally, across the state and country.
He said he's concerned for the industry, both in and out of the parish.
"What I know to be true is that it’s a big job creator and business creator for this part of Louisiana," said Clinton. "It’s an important regional creator. It's been growing."
He called it a quiet part of the economy, an industry not really on the radar until each spring when the Louisiana Nursery Festival usually is held in Forest Hill.
The festival was canceled last year and this year because of the pandemic.
Clinton said the region needs to pull together to make sure the industry gets support from governments and politicians so it gets the help it needs to recover. "We have to be more aware of that than we are," he said.
And he said it's not just the industry itself. Over the past 10 years, support businesses have sprung up in the area that depend on the nursery business.
Most of the industry's work force is local, said Forest Hill Mayor Ann Jeter, who owns a small nursery.
She called the storms "devastation for the entire community" with the loss of revenue coming into the village and because the storms happened so close to spring.
She's talked to several nursery owners. She agreed that they won't know the true extent of the damage for a few months.
"We’re all basically in the same shape," she said.
"And with such a small community, when one hurts, we all hurt. As a community, we will pull together."