Debra Davis and Marlee Moore
Hurricane Michael hammered the Southeast corner of Alabama Oct. 10, ripping apart what some farmers predicted was the area’s best cotton crop in years.
The Category 4 hurricane sustained winds of 155 mph as it landed in Mexico Beach, Florida, and packed a punch when it rolled through Fred Helms’ Rehobeth farm about 70 miles from the coast.
“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 said he was grateful to have picked about 250 of 800 acres of cotton planted this year ahead of the storm. About 30 more acres were ready to pick, but he ran out of time.
Hurricane Michael’s devastation continued into Henry and Geneva counties, scattering cattle, downing fences and trees, and destroying structures.
In Geneva County, wind tore Jason Parker’s 50-foot by 100-foot barn from its foundation, wrapping the metal around grain bins and destroying equipment.
“In southeast Alabama, our farmland is predominantly non-irrigated, so we depend on Mother Nature,” Parker said. “She was pretty good to us until this storm.”
Wind wreaked the most havoc on farmland, Parker said. Of his 1,000 acres of cotton, an estimated 800 acres is a total loss, since the defoliated cotton was vulnerable to wind damage.
Parker said he should have defoliated the remaining cotton a week ago but tried to leave foliage for protection.
“When you get wind like we had, it doesn’t matter how much protection you have,” he said. Nearby Dothan received wind gusts above 60 mph.
Helms is optimistic there’s less damage to his peanut crop. Before the hurricane, Helms had gathered about 500 acres of his 1,100 acres of peanuts. About 100 acres were plowed up right before the storm hit but should be OK, he added.
While fewer farmers plant soybeans in the Wiregrass, wind-whipped stalks could also create challenges at harvest for the crop.
West of Helms, and just outside Michael’s direct path, Sammy Gibbs of Escambia County finished gathering peanuts two days before the storm hit. He wasn’t as lucky with his cotton. He had picked 456 of his 1,156 planted acres.
“Our cotton crop in general was going to be fair,” he said. “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 cotton quality to suffer, said the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Carla Hornady.
“High wind and rain can fill cotton with debris, reducing quality,” said Hornady, the Federation’s Cotton, Soybean and Wheat & Feed Grain divisions director. “Recovery won’t be easy, and there are still crops to gather.”
While Hurricane Michael pounded Wiregrass counties, most north Alabama counties saw little effects from the storm.