By Marlee Moore
An extremely active Atlantic hurricane season hit Alabama row crops hard, yielding varied effects from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee Valley.
The Alabama Farmers Federation’s Carla Hornady said yields range from below-average to above-average as she talks to farmers across the state.
“Everything depends on where you live and what conditions you faced,” said Hornady, the Federation’s Cotton, Soybean and Wheat & Feed Grain divisions director. “The growing season went well, but hurricanes and tropical storms started hammering us during harvest. That’s leading to lower yields and quality loss.”
Hurricane Sally, which made landfall in south Alabama Sept. 16 before slowly churning north, delayed completing corn harvest and made gathering twisted, laid-over stalks more difficult for some farmers. The storm dumped more than 20 inches of rain along coastal counties and packed winds estimated at 105 miles per hour.
Cotton, peanuts and soybeans were pounded again Oct. 28-29 when Tropical Storm Zeta carved a path from Mobile County to Cherokee County.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Crop Progress and Condition Report, more than 40% of the cotton crop was still in the field when Zeta hit. Hornady said farmers estimate losing 400-600 pounds of cotton per acre.
“It’s devastating, especially for our farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt and coastal counties,” she said.
The 27th named storm of the 2020 hurricane season, Hurricane Zeta made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 2 storm with maximum winds of 110 miles per hour. It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it moved into Alabama, where it wreaked havoc on barns, grain bins, fences, poultry houses, hay, greenhouses, orchards and the pecan crop, which also took a beating from Hurricane Sally.
Sally hit Ashley Kelley’s cotton crop right before defoliation. Although his Covington County fields weren’t a direct hit from the storm, the county netted 11-15 inches of rain, dealing a blow to the crop.
“God blessed us with a great growing season,” said Kelley, 50, Covington County Farmers Federation president. “Once we got it going, it set a great crop, and we got rain as we needed it. Sally put a hurting on the crop, and the wind from Zeta didn’t help our defoliated cotton.”
While Kelley has picked cotton ranging from 500-1,200 pounds an acre, the peanut crop has been more consistent.
According to USDA’s November Crop Production Report, corn production is forecast at 54 million bushels, up 20% from 2019. Cotton production is forecast at 825,000 bales, down 20%.
With yield forecast at a record-high 4,000 pounds per acre, peanut production is forecast at 728 million pounds, up 39%. Soybean production is forecast at 10.5 million bushels, up 12%.
In Blount County, Rusty Gaines of Snead welcomed above-average rain on his corn, soybean and cotton fields. August was unusually damp, hampering hay production and slowing harvest. Gaines’ crop quality seems average so far, but harvest is slow.
“We had some pretty decent rainfall from Zeta that held us out, but we didn’t have the wind damage our friends had in Dallas or Chilton counties,” said Gaines, 41, who serves on the Blount County Farmers Federation board. “When you hear about that, you’re just thankful it’s just rain holding us out.”
A late harvest means Gaines likely won’t plant winter wheat. Ideally, he’d finish planting by Thanksgiving but was still harvesting soybeans and cotton in mid-November.
Around the same time, Alabama Peanut Producers Association Executive Director Jacob Davis said the finish line was in sight for many of his growers.
“Sunshine and minimal rain helped fields dry and allowed peanut harvesting to continue following Zeta,” Davis said. “While projections were high for peanut production this year, yields have suffered, mainly due to delayed digging and harvesting. However, peanut butter consumption is at an all-time high, partially because of the pandemic, and our farmers remain committed to growing healthy, safe, delicious peanuts.”
Additionally, adverse weather in the Midwest, plus the strong pace of exports, pushed prices higher for soybeans, corn, cotton and peanuts than projected earlier this year.
As farmers continue harvesting, hurricanes could still be an issue. Hurricane season ends Nov. 30.
“It’s different; it’s 2020,” Gaines said. “Nothing is normal.”