Hurricane deals heavy blow to Alabama agriculture

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Hurricane Michael caused almost $204 million in agricultural damage alone as it moved across Alabama. Alabama Cooperative Extension System Director Gary Lemme called it a devastating blow to farmers in the state’s Wiregrass region in southeast Alabama.

“Cotton farmers suffered the greatest losses,” said Lemme. “But the storm affected every portion of Wiregrass agriculture, including row crops, livestock, poultry and timber as well as fruit and vegetable production.”

Alabama Extension professionals spent the days following Michael evaluating actual losses in eight counties—Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Russell.

“Houston County alone suffered more than $100 million in storm damage to agriculture and agribusinesses,” said Lemme. “Geneva County was battered for an almost $39 million loss, and Henry County accounts for more than $30 million.”

Damage to the region’s more than 200,000 cotton acres reaches almost $108 million. Peanut losses are more than $11 million, while combined losses to corn and soybeans total more than $1.7 million.

While farmers did not suffer high livestock deaths, their operations sustained significant harm to fencing. Fence replacement costs total almost $18 million with another $5.6 million in debris removal expenses.

The region’s poultry houses weathered the storm better than those in neighboring Georgia. Poultry damages total about $1.4 million.

Farm structures including irrigation systems and agribusinesses, such as cotton gins and peanut buying points, took extensive damage as well. About 200 center pivot irrigation systems were destroyed by the storm. Damage to those systems alone accounts for $9.6 million, while structural damage on farms and at agribusinesses reaches another $11.9 million.

Pine forest stands were ravaged by the storm’s high winds that snapped some trees at midtrunk while toppling others. Destroyed timber is valued at almost $20.9 million.

“The forest impact goes beyond downed trees to pine straw production,” said Lemme. “We estimate pine straw losses at about $11.8 million.”

Lemme noted that smaller producers face potentially catastrophic situations.

“One grower lost his entire cucumber crop. Tomato growers are looking at losses in the 60 to 75 percent range,” he said. “Combined with greenhouse losses and pecan losses, the storm destroyed another almost $3.5 million.”

Lemme said Extension staff working with United States Department of Agriculture and agribusiness leaders used a systematic approach to estimate losses. The damages represent the first part of a report Alabama Extension will submit Nov. 1 to the state’s congressional delegation and the USDA.

“With agriculture damage estimates complete, we now must begin to evaluate the total economic loss to the region,” he said. “Farm income directly affects the health of the area’s local businesses.”

Lemme added that the Nov. 1 report will reflect the impact that agricultural losses will have on the region’s overall economic health.

“We are starting at $204 million in ag losses alone, but the economic impact will be much greater,” said Lemme. “It is far too easy to focus only on actual losses. We must also understand the total impact on the region’s economy in the coming months and years.”

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