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USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue tours Alabama farm damage from Hurricane Sally, listens to local farmers

LOXLEY – United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited Alabama on Monday to understand for himself the scope of the damage visited upon agricultural operations in Baldwin County, the area of the state hardest hit by Hurricane Sally.

Perdue took in the damage suffered by Underwood Pecan Farm in Summerdale and participated in a roundtable with farmers from across the county that was held at Flowerwood Nursery in Loxley. He was accompanied at both stops by U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (AL-01) and Commissioner Rick Pate of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

“The folks here, the resilience they have, there is no bitterness… this is what our agricultural community across this country is like… You saw the attitude they had, they’re gonna stay here, they’re going to replant and rebuild,” Perdue said in Summerdale.

Perdue was a two-term governor of Georgia from 2003-2011 and involved in the agricultural business during his time in the private sector.

The pecan farm in Summerdale where Perdue took in Sally’s wreckage is owned by Gary Underwood, and his wife, Billie Jo Underwood, who is an elected member of the Baldwin County Commission.

(Henry Thornton/YHN)

According to the Underwoods, their entire 2020 crop was destroyed overnight in the storm. In the orchard that was toured by government officials and reporters on Monday, 25 of 40 trees were uprooted by the storm.

The Underwoods said that was the orchard that fared the best of all their holdings.

“We were looking at one of the best crops we’d ever had,” said Gary Underwood. “We just built a shelling plant so we could package and have candies made.”

Other pictures of the damage suffered by the farm were available for viewing. The aerial shots revealed generationally devastating levels of damage.

(Henry Thornton/YHN)
(Henry Thornton/YHN)

Secretary Perdue called Pecan trees a “generational crop” due to the extended period of time between planting and when they reach a profitable level of productivity.

Both Perdue and the Underwoods say that a measure of relief was brought by crop insurance and hurricane insurance. “They’re a big help,” said Gary Underwood of the programs.

As of Monday, insurance adjusters had already visited Underwood Pecan Farm and certified that the 2020 crop was a total loss, which will give the proprietors an amount of financial relief.

Perdue on multiple occasions urged farmers experiencing similar issues to go to the disaster portal on Farmers.gov, which provides guidance on federal assistance for agriculture producers, including which programs for which growers might be eligible.

Byrne said legislators in the federal government were monitoring the costs incurred on existing relief programs by claimants in Alabama and other victims of recent natural disasters.

“If it turns out we don’t [have enough], we’ll have to put more money into it,” Byrne promised, saying there was bipartisan support for measures of the type and he would not be worried about it getting through Congress.

Gary Underwood said that it “meant an awful lot” to him that Secretary Perdue visited on Monday. He also praised Commissioner Pate, who called him the day after the storm hit to understand what happened and to formulate a plan to pick up the pieces.

“It was right up our gut, this storm. I mean it wasn’t supposed to be [a] big storm. I remember Hurricane Camille, Frederick, Ivan and Katrina. This [Sally] is the worst by far, for us,” Gary Underwood said of the destruction.

He noted that Sally’s combination of pouring rain, strong wind and moving north at only two or three miles per hour uprooted many more trees than a fast-moving storm in a higher category of hurricane would have.

After the appearance at the Underwood’s farm, Perdue traveled to nearby Loxley where he heard from an assortment of individuals in the local agriculture industry. The secretary gave updates on the Trump administration’s current position on trade and agricultural exports, while also taking in more information about the suffering in Alabama.

Yellowhammer News asked Commissioner Pate if he had an estimate on the value of what was lost by Alabama farmers due to Hurricane Sally.

Pate said that as of now one could not be calculated, and that it might take a while before a reliable statistic could be generated.

Perdue relayed to reporters that in his conversations with farmers there were some glimmers of hope. He said growers had “indicated that some of the bolls had opened” after farmers worried the damage and displacement would have prevented any further progress with the crop.

Perdue again praised the resiliency of farmers in his closing remarks.

“They keep getting knocked down, but golly they keep getting back up. That is the American spirit.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: [email protected] or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

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