Vegetable Losses Sam Watson
Adding to the problems facing Southwest Georgia vegetable producers will be lack of facilities to process produce with power outages.

Hurricane Michael, ‘timing was horrible’

UPDATED: Reports of hurricane damage continue to come in. 'Timing was horrible.'

Last week Sam Watson sold squash for $18. “I’ve never sold squash for $18,” he said the Thursday after Hurricane Michael pummeled Southwest Georgia.

“Now it’s gone,” he says.

Watson raises vegetables near Moultrie, Ga., and says he has never seen anything as devastating as the Oct. 10 hurricane that destroyed crops across a wide swath of southwest Georgia.

“We have bell peppers, cucumbers, squash and egg plants,” Watson said. “The cukes are on trellises. They are pretty beat up, and they were pretty and lush.”

He says eggplants may be OK. “Eggs are tough, but we need to get in and stand them up. Peppers are on the ground.”

And those valuable squash are knocked around. “We need to be out there, today, but definitely tomorrow, and get the vegetables in. But we have no power, so we can’t operate the packing sheds. We can’t cool anything, and if we can’t do that we would just pick it and throw it on the ground. We don’t want to do that. I don’t know what to tell people.”

He says peanut producers who may get into fields by Saturday might have nowhere to take the crop. “Without power, buying points can’t take peanuts.”

Watson said the timing of this storm could not have been worse. “The timing was horrible. I have cotton all around me (open and vulnerable). My peppers—we had not picked any. Now they are on the ground and all the blooms are gone. We don’t know whether to go in and stand them back up. We could get a freeze in early November.

“The timing was terrible—10 days earlier or 10 days later, it would have been bad, but not this bad.

“And this was the best crop we’ve had in a long time. Cotton was good, too. And the vegetable market was good. We haven’t had that in a long time (good market and good crop),” he said.

Lost Markets

Those markets might not be available if vegetable producers can salvage their produce, Watson says. “The country knows we just got hit by a hurricane, so buyers will say ‘don’t buy from Georgia.’ They will go to Mexico.”

He says buyers may have the impression that anything they buy from Georgia will be of poor quality. “That’s not true,” he says. “Our produce is still good.”

Producers needed a good year, he adds. “A lot of farmers were looking to get caught up and get ahead again.”

He says farmers are frustrated. “We can’t keep doing this.” Markets had not been good. “I sold cabbage last spring for $5.  Cabbage in the 1950s sold for $5 and production costs are a lot higher now. And our yields are not that much better.”

He says cotton farmers have to pay $750,000 for a picker. “And cotton prices are no better than they were 10 years ago.”

Georgia farmers have suffered through numerous crop losses the past few years. “Last year it was white flies and Irma before that.”

Watson, who serves in the Georgia State Legislature, says President Trump’s disaster area declaration will provide federal assistance.

“But who knows when we will get it,” he says.

Direct Hit

Greg Calhoun farms land in a 50-mile radius that includes Seminole, Miller, Baker, Decatur and Early Counties in southwest Georgia. He took a direct hit from Matthew.

“We’re in a heck of a mess. Right now, we are just opening roads. There is no electricity and no water. Light poles and pine trees are snapped in two like tooth picks. We lost more than half our pine trees. It’s bad,” he said.

For Calhoun and other southwest Georgia farmers, the storm came at the worst possible time. Calhoun expects that cotton still in the fields is a total loss with the same being true for peanuts.

“We were just getting started on picking cotton. The storm picked it for us,” he said. “We’ve already picked a lot of peanuts, but I’m really concerned about the ones still in the ground.”

Calhoun doesn’t know when he will get into the field to dig peanuts, and even if he can, he doesn’t know if he will be able to weigh them or dry them since he has no power. Moreover, the roof is torn off his warehouse, so he doesn’t know where he would store them even if he can harvest.

Johnny Cochran

Georgia cotton farmer Johnny Cochran found this the morning after Michael hit.

No Cotton Left

“The cotton is totally gone. There are no leaves and the plants or laying down. Anything that opened up is ruined.”

Calhoun said this is particularly heart breaking because this year’s cotton crop was shaping up to be one of the best he has seen in four or five years. “It really looked great before the storm, but now it is gone,” he laments.

Calhoun says everyone in southwest Georgia is suffering due to the wrath of Hurricane Michael.

“It tore up houses everywhere. You don’t go by a house without shingles missing or pine trees laying on top. In my house, we have a big old pine tree laying right in the middle. We’re staying in the kitchen and my bedroom isn’t damaged, but in the rest of the house the sheet rock is falling off and water is coming in where the roof is damaged.”

Calhoun knows it will be a slow recovery for his family and their neighbors.

“We’re just one of thousands and thousands. Everybody is damaged; everybody down here is hurt. It’s going to take years and years to straighten this thing out,” he said.

Like a Meteor Strike

Clay Pirkle farms in Turner and Irwin Counties in south central Georgia. He says Hurricane Michael was like a meteor hitting the community, bringing utter devastation.

“It’s as bad as you possibly can imagine,” he said.

What makes it particularly heartbreaking for Pirkle and other Georgia cotton farmers is they were expecting a record crop prior to Michael. “We had a great crop. I was looking at three-bale cotton,” Pirkle said. “This was shaping up to be the best crop of cotton folks have ever seen, and then it is gone in one night.”

Pirkle had harvested just 10 percent to 15 percent of his cotton prior to Michael. He estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of the crop in his part of Georgia is a total loss. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” he said.

Peanuts, on the other hand, should be OK. Pirkle harvested 60 percent of his peanut crop before the storm’s arrival. “For the rest of the peanut crop, we’ll wait a few days for the ground to dry up and start digging and harvesting. Peanuts are underground, so they didn’t see the damage of wind like cotton,” Pirkle said.

Still, there is the logistical issue. Peanut buying points have been severely damaged by Michael with severe damage to drying facilities and warehouses.

“We have to have some help to overcome this. Insurance is not enough. This is something you can’t recover from. As a farmer, when things are thrown at us – drought, invasive weed species, insects, worms, too much heat, cold too early, cold too late – you soldier on. We are used to a lot of unknowns. A farmer soldiers on, puts his head down, finds an obstacle and overcomes it. This is one thing you can’t soldier through.”

Economic Losses

Jeffrey Dorfman, University of Georgia Extension economist, says as of Friday afternoon (Oct. 12), “Hurricane Michael has proven to be a devastating blow to Georgia agriculture. As early reports of damage start to trickle in, it appears that some of our worst fears were realized. Cotton still in the field suffered considerable damage, with some fields in Southwest Georgia being completely lost (all the cotton was blown off the plants).

“Preliminary damage estimates for Georgia’s cotton crop are $305 million. However, the worst damages were incurred in the pecan industry. Georgia is the top state for pecan production and the losses are staggering. Based on reports so far, Georgia pecan growers likely lost $100 million from this year’s crop, $300 million in lost trees, and $225 million in future profits over the next decade while new orchards are being reestablished.”

Dorfman says other losses push the total higher. He says after losses to irrigation equipment, chicken houses, peanuts, soybeans, and other crops are tallied, “Georgia agriculture likely took a $1 billion hit from Hurricane Michael.”

Bill Tyson, UGA Extension agent, Bulloch County, in Georgia’s southeast district, says damage was less than expected. “We got pretty lucky,” Tyson said Friday afternoon, back in his office after a mandatory office closing ahead of the hurricane.

“We have some damage,” he said, “but it’s not nearly as bad as it looks in other areas, based on pictures I’ve seen.’

He says some cotton fields “have lint on the ground, but the plants have not been stripped. It looks better than we expected.”

Tyson says the area’s pecan industry came out OK, too. “We have some limbs down.” Minor damage is a blessing, he says following a devastating loss two years ago from Hurricane Matthew. 

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