Agricultural damage from Hurricane Michael forecast to top $1.3 billion, led by cotton and pecans

  • Agricultural damage from Hurricane Michael's rampage last week is expected to top $1.3 billion in the Southeast, with $1.2 billion of the total in Georgia alone, according to officials.
  • Cotton and pecan farmers suffered the worst damage in Alabama and Georgia.
  • Roughly 100 chicken houses were destroyed in Georgia, including more than 2 million chickens.
  • Florida suffered damage to at least 3 million acres of timber as well as peanuts, cotton and other agricultural commodities.
Damaged cotton field in the Wiregrass area of Alabama after taking a beating during Hurricane Michael. 
Source: Alabama Farmers Federation
Damaged cotton field in the Wiregrass area of Alabama after taking a beating during Hurricane Michael. 

Agricultural damage from Hurricane Michael's rampage last week across Georgia, Alabama and Florida is forecast to top $1.3 billion, with pecan and cotton farms the hardest hit as well as the region's poultry operations, according to officials.

"Hurricane and cotton is like oil and water — it just doesn't mix at all," said William Birdsong, an agronomist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University in Headland. He estimated the loss to Alabama cotton crops could total just over $100 million and said the price of cotton could increase given damage also is in nearby production centers, including Georgia.

In Georgia alone, the latest farm-related damage estimate from the storm is $1.2 billion, and in Florida another $100 million to $200 million, according to agricultural economist Jeffrey Dorfman at the University of Georgia in Athens, who calculated damage in the region. This marked the third straight year that Georgia pecan growers have suffered from damage due to hurricanes.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melanie Trump toured areas stricken by Hurricane Michael in Florida and Georgia on Monday. Trump tweeted Monday after arriving in Florida that he was "thinking about our GREAT Alabama farmers and our many friends in North and South Carolina today. We are with you!"

Last month, Hurricane Florence caused widespread devastation in the Carolinas, including significant losses to crops and to poultry and swine operations.

"Having seen firsthand some of the catastrophic damage from Hurricane Michael, I know that farmers will need all the help they can get to recover," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "In addition to crop insurance, USDA has a variety of programs to assist producers."

Cotton, pecan losses

As a result of Hurricane Michael's high winds and heavy rains, Dorfman estimates losses of $300 million on the Georgia cotton crop as well as over $600 million in losses to pecans. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 caused the loss of about one-third of Georgia's pecan crop.

Only about 15 percent of Georgia's cotton crop was harvested before last week's Category 4 hurricane struck the region. Cotton is the top crop in terms of production value in Georgia, followed by peanuts and pecans, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

"We lost most of this year's (pecan) crop plus tens of thousands of acres of orchards that will take a decade to replace," Dorfman said in an email. USDA figures show Georgia had about 120,000 acres of pecans planted last year.

Peanuts, vegetable-growing operations and pine plantations in Georgia were also damaged. About 30 percent of the vegetables were harvested before the hurricane and approximately half of the peanut crop.

Poultry farm impacts

Dorfman said "nearly 100 chicken houses" were confirmed destroyed in Georgia, but he didn't have a dollar figure on livestock losses.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture estimated more than 2 million chickens were lost. It estimated the poultry industry contributes about $23 billion to the state's economy.

Strong winds exceeding 120 mph tore through some areas of Georgia, causing some chicken houses to topple. Heavy rains also contributed to the damage.

"Florida losses in agriculture are much smaller," Dorfman added, explaining that "there was less farmland in the path." Even so, he estimated the Sunshine State suffered between $100 million and $200 million, reflecting in part significant losses in pine plantations in Florida.

Florida timber losses

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam last week indicated at least 3 million acres of timber were damaged by the hurricane along with other commodities, including peanuts, cotton and tomatoes as well as dairy, poultry and aquaculture.

Despite damage to trees, some of the lumber felled by the storm could potentially be salvaged to help in the rebuilding.

It could take years for the industry to recover and renew lost trees.

"We'll continue to do everything we can to help Florida agriculture recover from this catastrophic hurricane," Putnam said in a release.

Alabama damage

Cotton is Alabama's top crop in terms of value, and the expectation was for a record high yield of cotton this year. About 10 percent of the crop was harvested just before Hurricane Michael's journey into the state.

"We were at the most inopportune time for a storm to hit us, when cotton is being defoliated and the fibers are exposed on the plant and harvest has begun," said Birdsong, the Alabama agronomist. "That's when the cotton is most vulnerable to any kind of disastrous damage."

Birdsong estimates about 1 million bales of cotton could be lost due to Hurricane Michael. He said Houston County in Alabama suffered the worst storm damage, followed by surrounding counties of Dale, Geneva and Henry.

"Not only does southeast Alabama have a lot of cotton makers, but this storm went on into Georgia, where they have about 1 million acres or so," he said. "Eventually the market will see that supply isn't coming in, and the price of cotton could go on up."

Some spring corn acreage was blown down by the hurricane in Alabama, but Birdsong said damage isn't anything like the cotton sector suffered. He also said the peanut crop had some impacts in Alabama and Georgia but the biggest challenge is the loss of power and damage to infrastructure, including some peanut elevators blown down.

"The peanut industry was in decent shape where they were at in the harvest season, but now it's the handling issues with the crop," he said. "All these peanuts have to be dried whenever they are harvested. And you don't have the electricity to put peanuts into the warehouse."