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Hurricane Michael devastates Wiregrass cotton crop

When Hurricane Michael hammered the southeast corner of Alabama Wednesday, the storm ripped apart what some farmers predicted was the area’s best cotton crop in years, says a release by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

The then-Category 4 hurricane sustained winds of 155 mph as it landed in Mexico Beach, Florida, and packed a powerful punch when it rolled through Fred Helms’ Rehobeth farm about 70 miles from the coastline in Houston County.

“This year yields looked good for peanuts and cotton, probably our best in 10 years,” Helms said. “The cotton would have picked 1,000 pounds an acre before. It might pick 350 pounds now.”

Helms added that he was grateful to have picked about 250 of his 800 acres of cotton planted this year ahead of the hurricane. Approximately 30 additional acres were ready to pick, but Helms ran out of time before Michael made landfall.

The hurricane’s devastation continued into Henry and Geneva counties, scattering cattle, downing fences and trees and destroying important structures.

In Geneva County, wind even ripped Jason Parker’s 50-foot by 100-foot barn from its foundation, wrapping the metal around grain bins and destroying critical equipment.

“In southeast Alabama, our farmland is predominantly non-irrigated, so we depend on Mother Nature,” Parker explained. “She was pretty good to us until this storm.”

Wind, more-so than water, wreaked the most havoc on Alabama farmland, as Parker outlined. Of his 1,000 acres of cotton, an estimated 800 acres is a total loss, since the defoliated cotton was vulnerable to devastating wind damage.

Parker noted that he should have defoliated the remaining cotton a week ago but tried to leave foliage for protection. However, the wind was too much to overcome regardless – nearby Dothan received wind gusts above 60 mph.

“When you get wind like we had, it doesn’t matter how much protection you have,” Parker added.

Helms is hopeful that there is less damage to his peanut crop than the cotton. Before Michael, Helms had gathered about 500 of his 1,100 acres of peanuts. About 100 acres were plowed up immediately before the storm hit but should be fine, he said.

While soybeans are planted less frequently in the Wiregrass, wind-whipped stalks could also create challenges at harvest for that crop.

West of Helms, and just outside the hurricane’s direct path, Sammy Gibbs of Escambia County finished gathering peanuts two short days before the storm struck. Unfortunately, he was not as lucky with his cotton, only having picked 456 of his 1,156 planted acres.

“Our cotton crop in general was going to be fair,” he remarked. “The cotton we picked early was light because of excess rain from Tropical Storm Gordon in early September. What should have been 1,000 pounds of cotton per acre was closer to 650-700 pounds per acre.”

In addition to yield loss, farmers expect the remaining cotton’s quality to suffer, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Cotton, Soybean and Wheat & Feed Grain divisions director Carla Hornady.

“High wind and rain can fill cotton with debris, reducing quality,” Hornady detailed.“Recovery won’t be easy, and there are still crops to gather.”

Alabama officials have expressed their concern for the Wiregrass and the area’s farmers, making it clear that the state’s prayers are with them and that no effort will be spared to make available all possible state and federal resources.

“Thankful for first responders & those working to repair the damage of #HurricaneMichael. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of those affected in #Alabama & throughout the Southeast,” Senator Richard Shelby said in a tweet.

According to the Alabama Daily News, Governor Kay Ivey is personally surveying the damage Thursday afternoon.

Ivey spoke by phone with President Donald Trump on Wednesday regarding the hurricane’s impact, and, per the Alabama Daily News, “has been communicating via phone & text w/ Alabama EMA Director Brian Hastings and local lawmakers about various damage throughout the area and will get an updated briefing later today at the Dothan/Houston County emergency management office.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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