GFB News Magazine

A year later, Hurricane Michael recovery inches along

Posted on November 19, 2019 12:00 AM

By Jay Stone

Farmers will often tell you that diversification is a key component of farm success. Add crops. Add livestock. Open a roadside market. Peddle your services to other farms.

Diverse operations generate multiple streams of income and can help level cash flow in a profession prone to financial roller-coaster rides.

In the worst of situations, though, diversification can also mean more ways to lose money. Hurricane Michael, which came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico and ravaged Florida, Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama, was that sort of situation.

A year later, the signs of recovery from Michael are everywhere in Southwest Georgia.

There are combines in fields, rolls of harvested cotton, new roofs on houses, repaired grain bins - all indicators that the area slammed by one of the most destructive storms in state history is moving forward. Perhaps not fast enough for most people affected by the storm, but the progress is undeniable.

The recovery isn’t complete, though, and likely won’t be for years.

Impact on cattle producers

For Georgia Farm Bureau President Gerald Long and his son, Justin, the family farm took multiple hits.

There were miles of fencing that had to be repaired or replaced on the Longs’ farm in eastern Decatur County. Although the Longs’ cattle hadn’t scattered immediately after the storm, downed fencing meant they might.

The Longs first sought to hem the cattle in, then worked on fences to expand their access to grazing. Because of the downed fences, the Longs’ grazing pastures were reduced to about one sixth of their normal area. The process of repairing the fences was slow and continued into October 2019.

“We’ve always done 100 percent of our fence work ourselves,” Justin Long said. “I had to hire a guy this year just to come in and repair fences.”

Justin said the farm had used more than 15 rolls of barbed wire and more than 2,000 metal “T” posts for repairs on approximately a mile of fencing. In early October, they still had almost another mile of fencing to repair.

Because the Longs’ grazing area was extremely limited after the storm, they had to feed hay to their cattle. Winter grazing, which Gerald Long said the farm normally starts by Nov. 10, didn’t begin until just before Christmas last year.

When the storm hit, the Longs’ cattle were calving, so those calves didn’t have access to extra nutrition normally gained through grazing. The result, a year after the storm, is that the 2018 fall calves weigh significantly less on average than the ones born in 2017, Gerald said.

Without grazing, many ranchers opted to sell portions of their herds, causing an oversupply that pushed cattle prices down. The grazing issues also caused a lower conception rate this year, which translates to fewer calves next year.

“It all goes back to that storm,” Gerald said. “We’re probably going to shorten the age of our cattle on calving, meaning we’re going to have to cull them sooner. It’s going to take three or four years for a cow-calf producer to overcome Hurricane Michael.”

One pecan orchard’s journey

In Seminole County, which took the worst of the storm, there are still trees on the ground. Damaged irrigation pivots dot the landscape at field edges, their replacements in many cases gleaming in the background.

Just outside Donalsonville, there are gaps where downed pecan trees have been removed from Seldom Rest Farms. Many spaces are filled with tiny seedlings, while some older trees that were broken mid-trunk or had limbs torn off still stand, shoots of new limbs giving them a canopy of new growth. More mature trees, many still standing and seemingly intact, have dying sections of leaves, the result of root damage from violent shaking caused by Michael’s winds.

“That stress is coming through big-time now,” said Seldom Rest Farm Manager Steve Bailey. “We’re going to be years [recovering]. I’d say you’d need a follow-up on these orchards in about four years to really know what you’re dealing with.”

Seldom Rest has approximately 1,400 acres of pecan orchards and lost about 8,000 trees, Bailey said. Some of them were planted in the 1940s.

Row crops & vegetables

Seldom Rest is owned by a land management company that rents its 7,000 acres to a handful of farmers, who primarily grow cotton, peanuts and corn. Their 2018 crops, Bailey said, were nearly a total loss.

Back in Decatur County at Long farms, the you-pick vegetable business the Longs have run for more than 30 years suffered diminished business last fall.

“The general public didn’t have any money,” Justin Long said. “They just got off the wildest fair ride of their life, and their whole lives were destroyed. Everybody who comes here this time of year to buy [sweet] potatoes or peas from us stayed home last year.”

This summer, the market was extremely busy with customers seeking to restock after they lost stored vegetables because they lost power following the hurricane.

Infrastructure damage

Seldom Rest sustained almost $2 million in damage to its irrigation pivots, which provide water to more than 80 percent of the farms’ total acreage.

The pivots are part of extensive damage to farm infrastructure across the region, and farmers have struggled with getting their farm structures repaired or replaced due to cost, lack of materials or labor.

Twelve miles east of Donalsonville, just across the Decatur County line, Glenn Heard Farms sustained extensive damage to its grain elevators, a peanut buying point grading shed, drying sheds and a storage building in addition to Heard’s extensive crop losses in cotton and corn. 

“We had one fertilizer shed that was completely blown away, and we haven’t been able to get a contractor in here to build another one,” said Heard, a Decatur County Farm Bureau director. The shelter over the peanut grading point was also blown away. “We need to do that. It’s a little more complicated building, and we just ran out of time.”

The storm damage forced Heard to delay planned projects and normal repairs and upgrades that are done between growing seasons.

Timber takes a hit

Southwest Georgia timber production took hits on several fronts. UGA estimated timber losses from Michael at approximately $763 million.

Timber was sold off in the aftermath of the storm. As in the cattle market, this caused a glut that pushed prices down. Still, to prevent the spread of disease that affects trees, the downed trees needed to be removed. Forests in Michael’s path are significantly thinner a year later.

“We clear-cut the ones that had extensive losses,” Heard said. “If 90% or more of the trees were down, we went ahead and clear-cut that. If we had a stand that was 20, 30, 40% of what we had, we just cleaned up within it and left it standing.”

Some of Heard’s damaged forest land will be replanted in trees. Other portions could be converted to crop land.

“I don’t want to, but now is the time,” Heard said. “I’ve either got to do it now or replant it in trees and wait 30 years.”

Staying optimistic

The news is not all bad. While many Georgia farmers harmed by Michael were still waiting for federal disaster assistance to arrive in early November, the promise of that aid prompted some banks to be more patient with farmers than they might otherwise, Heard said.

Combined with insurance coverage and state aid many farmers have been able to move forward with their 2019 crops.

“As far as getting past the storm, I think we’re a lot better off than I ever dreamed that we’d be at this point,” Heard said.