Broken Pecan Trees, Ruined Cotton Harvest: Georgia Counts Michael hurricane cost

By guest author Cameron McWhirter –  Photographs by Wes Frazer for The Wall Street Journal

Standing in a ruined field, Dan Simmons did some quick math as he surveyed row after row of bent stalks with lumps of white cotton scattered on the grayish-brown dirt.

“That’s USD 64000 laying on the ground,” Mr. Simmons, 52 years old, said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It looks like an early snow.”

 

The 80-acre field was just a small portion of the 4200 acres of cotton on the farm Mr. Simmons manages, most of which suffered damage from Hurricane Michael. The farm’s crew worked frantically to protect the harvest in the days leading up to the storm’s arrival, but they only spared a portion of what would have been a bumper crop before the wind and rains swept in.

In Southern Georgia’s Dooly County, about 175 miles inland from where Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle, cotton farmers and pecan growers were met with violent winds just weeks away from harvesting.

“This is by far the most damaging event I’ve ever seen for the pecan industry,” said Lenny Wells, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension’s expert on the nut.

The state’s pecan growers expected a great harvest this year of about 110 million pounds—but now it likely will bring in half that, said Mr. Wells. A similar assessments of the damage to Georgia cotton hasn’t been completed. The value of cotton production in the states hit by Michael was almost $1.6 billion in 2017, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman. Farmers also suffered losses in other crops, and an estimated 87 poultry houses were destroyed statewide, the Georgia Department of Agriculture said.

In Vienna, Ga., the Dooly County seat, electricity was restored this week and all roads cleared, but tree limbs, bits of roofing and broken lampposts lay in a park in front of the county courthouse. Outside town, downed trees and destroyed fields could be seen along most roads. The air smelled of smoke as people burned off debris.

Terrell Hudson, 71, chairman of the county’s board of commissioners and a lifelong farmer, choked up talking about the destruction.

“There will be farmers who throw up their hands and walk away,” he said.

While many farmers had crop insurance, much of their coverage was limited, and insurance payments will be based upon average crop yields of several previous years, not this year’s expected high.

Local insurance agent Shan Akin said his offices have been handling a surge in calls from farmers inquiring about crop insurance as well as property insurance for damaged buildings and equipment.

Some farmers have other financial problems, including contracts signed earlier in the season to provide certain volumes of crops. With their fields destroyed, many may have to try to buy crops from unaffected areas to fulfil those contracts.

Before the storm, county farmers literally were in “high cotton,” with the plant’s bolls—the white puff harvested for textile—large, healthy and ready for harvest.

With about 70000 acres planted each year for cotton production, Dooly County has been the leading cotton grower in Georgia, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

Matt Coley, owner-operator at the family-owned Coley Gin & Fertilizer Company, said now the gin might be handling 40 % less than expected. As cotton-processing machines rumbled near his office, Mr. Coley said he wasn’t sure how the company would deal with the loss, but hoped to process enough cotton and peanuts—which weren’t hit too badly in the area—to make enough money “to be here next year.”

“The Good Lord has it in his hands,” he said. “It gets to the point where me worrying and fretting isn’t going to make it any better.”

Ellis Brothers Pecans Inc. lost about 2000 trees when Tropical Storm Irma hit the area last year. Hurricane Michael knocked over at least 4000, said manager Slade Ellis, standing among fallen trunks and branches, some a century old.

As he walked, his boots crunched fallen pecans strewn by the tens of thousands in just one orchard of the 3000 acres of pecan trees the family farms.

“Our whole crop is on the ground,” said Mr. Ellis, 27. “It’s going to be a salvage operation.”

His family has crop insurance, but adjusters will want them to harvest what they can, which will require hiring double the staff of about 50 employees to remove limbs to retrieve some of the nuts before they go bad, he said.

Corey Young, 31, an Ellis Brothers farmhand, said, “it is a mess,” but the storm has brought opportunity to the county’s unemployed in the near term.

“When I saw the storm coming, I saw work,” he said. “That was the silver lining.”

The biggest loss for Ellis Brothers is the trees, which are not insured—the farm’s crop insurance covers only the pecans themselves—and require at least six years’ growth before producing any decent nuts, and 10 before they produce well, said Mr. Ellis. Many of the uprooted trees also damaged irrigation systems, he said.

Asked how the farm would recover from the storm, Mr. Ellis paused, then said, “I do not know how to answer that.”

Ben Kesling contributed to this article.

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