Katrina Dashes Harvest Hopes For Southwest Alabama
Sunshine, plentiful rain and warm temperatures had set the stage for what was expected to be one of Alabama’s best crop years in nearly two decades. But as Hurricane Katrina stormed across the state in late August, many southwest Alabama farmers saw their hopes for a good harvest blow away.Katrina roared toward the southern U.S. coast as a Category 5 hurricane, but slowed into a Category 4 storm before landfall. It struck Louisiana’s submerged peninsula with wind speeds of 145 miles per hour. By the time it made landfall on the Gulf Coast, wind speeds still topped 125 mph, and areas up to 100 miles away from the storm’s eye, including southwest Alabama, experienced hurricane-force winds.Art Sessions, who grows cotton, peanuts, pecans, fruits and vegetables on his family farm near Grand Bay west of Mobile, compares Katrina to Hurricane Frederic which hit them hard in 1979.”Katrina hit us for 15 hours straight with hurricane-force winds,” said Sessions, who lives only a few miles from the coast. “We lost a lot of pecan orchards and peach trees and a lot of satsuma trees are twisted and mangled up. I’d say 80 or 90 percent of the cotton in Mobile County is a total loss, but we’ll have to wait and see if the plants recover. It really tore us up.”Most homes near Sessions’ fared well, but several barns and sheds were missing portions of their roofs or were damaged by fallen trees. Fence damage was heavy in southwest Alabama, and farmers reported their immediate concern following the storm was repairing fences to keep livestock confined.”Our only bright spot will probably be peanuts,” Sessions said about this year’s harvest. “The peanuts will be hurt some by the saltwater that got dumped on them, but we hope to save most of that crop. Once our peanuts are in, we’ll spend all winter cleaning up, and we’ll start over next spring.”Forecasters with USDA’s Alabama Field Office were predicting a record peanut crop for Alabama along with high yields for cotton, corn and soybeans.The National Agricultural Statistics Service projected peanut yields of 3,000 pounds per acre for 2005. That would top the record set in 1984 of 2,960 pounds per acre and would exceed the 10-year average of 2,282 pounds per acre.Randy Griggs, executive director of Alabama Peanut Producers Association, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said Alabama’s peanut crop still looks promising.”Overall, I think the peanut crop fared well following the storm,” Griggs said, adding that excessive rain caused by Katrina could increase disease pressure on the crop.”We have the potential of another excellent crop both in yields and quality,” Griggs said. “It hasn’t always been that way. Peanut acreage is a function of the price of cotton. With lower cotton prices, we’re seeing more farmers try peanuts. The new areas have maintained Alabama’s production level while giving traditional areas a chance to establish better rotation programs. The result is a high-quality crop with higher yields as noted the last three years. Now the key is to continue to grow our markets to keep a strong demand.”Many farmers say they will need a bumper crop to help cover higher input prices, especially fuel costs. Prior to the storm, farmers were facing record-high prices for diesel fuel. Immediately following the storm their fears worsened as supplies ran short in some areas and prices jumped to record levels.Alabama corn growers hurried to gather their crops prior to Katrina’s landfall. Officials with the National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted Alabama’s corn crop would be above average in 2005. Last year, corn yields were the best in Alabama’s history at 123 bushels per acre, and this year’s harvest is expected to approach that number with forecasters predicting 120 bushels per acre statewide.Buddy Adamson, director of the Federation’s Cotton Division and Wheat & Feed Grains Division, said despite early adverse weather conditions that included cool and wet weather throughout the state during planting and early growing season, he expects good yields throughout much of the state.”In the areas hardest hit by the storm, most of the corn had been harvested, but what was left had heavy losses,” Adamson said. “In other areas of the state, where harvest is not yet completed, it appears losses will be minimal.”Cotton in southwest Alabama was significantly affected, Adamson said, but the degree of damage still isn’t known.”There’s a big question mark because the cotton bolls are not open, and it’s hard to determine the extent of the damage to the plants,” he said. “There is a lot of leaf damage, so we don’t know how much the plants will recover.”Outside of southwest Alabama, there was some cotton damage caused by high winds, including twisting of the stalks and loss of bolls.Prior to the storm, cotton averages for the year were expected to be 726 pounds per acre, only slightly higher than 2004 when the average yield was 724 pounds. The cotton harvest record was set in 1985 when farmers picked 795 pounds of cotton per acre. However, Adamson said farms that suffered moderate to severe hurricane damage this year will likely harvest much less than the anticipated average.The effects of Asian Soybean Rust on the state’s soybean crop has yet to be determined, but already the disease was confirmed in 12 counties as of late August. Hurricane Katrina caused substantial damage to soybean fields in southwest Alabama, according to Federation Soybean Director Steve Guy, adding that soybean fields in other areas of the state hit by the storm sustained minimal damage.Soybeans are predicted to yield 32 bushels per acre in Alabama this year, compared to 35 last year. A record of 36 bushels per acre was set in the state in 1985.It appears that Katrina’s damage to Alabama’s greenhouse and nursery industry will be costlier than Hurricane Ivan in 2004, according to Federation Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Director Brian Hardin.”It is difficult to attach a dollar figure, but Baldwin County may have done better this time in comparison, while Mobile County has certainly fared worse,” Hardin said. “There is structure or roof damage and destruction of out buildings and greenhouse structures, including shade cloth and plastic. Most growers had a lot of plants blown over and strewn about, which caused some damage to the plants. Plant loss reports range from minimal to total and extreme southern locations also had plants sitting in saltwater for several days. Most growers were able to get water to their plants using generator power following the storm, but some were without water for several days.”Estimates to Alabama’s forests were still being analyzed; however, damage will likely be most severe in Mobile, Washington and Choctaw counties.Some Alabama dairies were without power for several days and fuel prices and availability caused concern for those operating with generator power. Catfish and poultry producers shared those concerns as well. Damage to poultry houses from the hurricane was minimal with the heaviest damage reported in Cullman County.Alfa Comments on Hurricane LossesOn the heels of the deadly Aug. 28 hurricane that pounded the Gulf Coast, Alfa Insurance Group and Alfa Corporation estimated preliminary storm losses would be less than $125 million for the Alfa Group. Company officials reported that Hurricane Katrina had a “significant impact” on policyholders in Mississippi and western Alabama, but the company’s exposure along the storm-ravaged Mississippi coast is limited.”Our adjusters, agents and customer service representatives are working diligently to make sure our policyholders are taken care of as soon as possible,” said Alfa President Jerry A. Newby. “We are concerned that our outstanding service may be hampered by the devastation, especially in the southern half of Mississippi. We will work relentlessly to overcome these obstacles. Our employees’ primary focus is on the people who have been affected by this deadly storm and, as always, to reach these hard-hit areas as quickly as possible. Our prayers go out to the many families whose lives have been touched by this storm.”Alfa’s homeowner market share in Mississippi is about 2.5 percent. In addition, Alfa has limited exposure in the southern-most counties of Mississippi. Alabama’s storm losses are primarily in the western half of the state, including two densely populated counties.Alabama Farmers Federation Seeks Help for Farmers The Alabama Farmers Federation is working with local, state and federal officials to assess the agricultural damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and speed relief to farmers in need. Federation President Jerry A. Newby said the organization’s top priority is helping its members recover from the storm as quickly as possible.”Hurricane Katrina has brought unprecedented devastation to the Gulf Coast, and our thoughts and prayers are with our neighbors who have lost loved ones and had their homes and businesses destroyed by this terrible storm,” Newby said. “While we join all Americans in reaching out to the those who have been hurt or displaced by Katrina, the Alabama Farmers Federation also is working hard to secure assistance for farmers whose crops were damaged by the hurricane.”Newby said the presidential disaster declaration will trigger the availability of low-interest loans for farmers as well as the activation of the Emergency Conservation Program, which provides cost-share assistance to help farmers clean up downed trees and repair fences. The Federation also is encouraging Alabama’s congressional delegation to provide leadership for a supplemental appropriations bill that would provide crop disaster assistance to farmers with yield and quality losses.In addition to working with government officials, the Federation put out a call to its members for generators to help dairy farmers in the Gulf Coast region who lost electrical service needed to power milking machines and refrigerated storage tanks. The Federation, along with the Alfa companies, also called on members, employees and affiliated county Farmers Federations to make contributions to the American Red Cross. Alfa agreed to match the contributions of its employees and county Federations up to $250,000.For farmers and rural communities hit hard by Katrina, the American Farm Bureau has established the Hurricane Ag Fund, which will provide longer-term assistance to those involved in agriculture.The Federation encourages farmers who have sustained damage to contact their local Farm Service Agency office. Those wishing to make a donation to American Red Cross should call 1-800-HELP-NOW or visit www.redcross.org. To contribute to the American Farm Bureau Hurricane Ag Fund, send checks to AFBFA/Hurricane Ag Fund, 600 Maryland Avenue S.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20024.Watch for more updates about ongoing relief efforts for farmers at www.alfafarmers.org.