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Farmers in northern Florida have been working overtime to protect crops and livestock as Hurricane Michael hits the coast near Panama City in what could be the most powerful storm ever recorded to strike the state's Panhandle region.
The "potentially catastrophic" category 4 hurricane that took a northward path to the Florida Panhandle is reported to be producing maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour and even higher gusts. The National Weather Service warned about "life-threatening storm surges" of 10 feet or more and heavy rainfall.
Forecasters also have warned about dangerous storm conditions in Alabama and Georgia, as well as possible tornadoes. In all, about 30 million people across the Southeast region are in the path of Michael.
"The bull's-eye is going to be western Florida, the southeastern corner of Alabama and then southwest Georgia," said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "That's where you're going to have extensive wind damage as that eye wall pushes through."
There's a concern the heavy rain and winds could wallop the peanut and cotton crop as well as damage pecan production. Pecan trees are vulnerable to getting blown over, as was the case in 2016's Hurricane Matthew when portions of the Southeast growing region lost more than 10 percent of the trees.
Hurricane Michael comes as farmers in the Southeast are in the middle of harvesting cotton and peanuts. The risk is the storm could cause excessive flooding and result in unharvested peanuts rotting in soaking soil. The storm could cause damage to cotton as hurricane-force winds toss the cotton bolls.
"The guys with cotton and peanuts are going as hard as they can go to try to get every bit of crop they can before the wind and rain comes in," said Andrew Taylor, who raises cattle and grows grains in Florida's Walton County near the Alabama border. "I usually grow peanuts but didn't have a crop this year, luckily."
An estimated 58 percent of the peanut crop in Florida was harvested as of Oct. 7, while only 28 percent was harvested across the state line in Alabama, according to the USDA.
About 85 percent of the nation's peanut production comes from the Southeastern region, according to USDA's Rippey.
Many peanut growers in the region also grow cotton, which tends to be a higher margin product for farmers. Most of the cotton production in Florida is in the Panhandle region.
"This is the time of the year they begin harvesting the cotton, and I'd say only 15 percent of the crop has been harvested at this point," said David Ruppenicker, CEO of Southern Cotton Growers, a Georgia-based trade group representing the industry in six Southeast states. "The cotton is in the field in a very vulnerable state — all open and sitting there and ready to be picked."
Southeastern cotton accounts for about 30 percent of the U.S. total production, according to the USDA. Georgia alone accounts for roughly half of the region's overall crop.
Ruppenicker said Wednesday the high winds and heavy downpour of rain could destroy a significant portion of the crop. He said the hurricane is forecast to come in where the Southeast cotton industry starts and track directly through the growing region, from Florida and Alabama into Georgia and the Carolinas and Virginia.
"The track of the hurricane is almost like you could name it the 'Southeast Cotton Industry Hurricane,' because it's coming in to Panama City, and there's about 140,000 acres of cotton in the Florida Panhandle," Ruppenicker said. Roughly 450,000 acres of cotton grow in neighboring Alabama and more than 1.5 million acres in Georgia.
Last month, cotton producers in the Carolinas experienced some losses due to Hurricane Florence.
"North and South Carolina were just blasted by Hurricane Florence," said Ruppenicker. "Unfortunately, when Michael gets up there it's going to be in the same territory that was hit three weeks ago by Florence, which damaged the cotton crop really bad up there."
At the same time, lumber and paper mills in the southern part of Georgia are at risk. The industry experienced some damage last year with Hurricane Irma.
As for the cattle, Taylor said there's been an effort in recent days to move the animals to interior pastures where they are away from structures and trees that can fall in the storm. He also said livestock ranchers have prepared generators to run wells to make sure cattle have access to water.
"We're just running to make sure the livestock is cared for properly," Taylor said.
There also are poultry and egg farms in the path of the storm in northern Walton and Okaloosa counties in Florida as well as in southeast Alabama. Hurricane warnings include Geneva and Houston counties in Alabama.
At least four chicken processing plants along the border region were expected to close by midday, according to an industry executive.
"What the companies started doing, as of Monday, was filling up all the feed bins to try to get all the farms as full of feed as possible," Ray Hilburn, a poultry farmer and associate director of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, said Wednesday morning. "This is supposed to be like a 24-hour thing, and hopefully everything will be back to normal by tomorrow."
According to Hilburn, the chickens should have enough feed to get by for at least a week in case roads are blocked due to storm damage. Also, he said all the major poultry farms have backup generators prepared to run to protect their animals if power goes out.
When last month's Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina's poultry sector, it caused the loss of at least 3.4 million birds, according to state officials.
But Hilburn isn't expecting such significant flooding. "It's the surges of water, and that shouldn't affect us that much," Hilburn said.
He said there could be an "isolated case" of heavy rainfall in some areas so the trade association has been reminding producers to do everything possible to protect livestock from heavy winds and water.