Rodney Dawson has farmed 48 seasons through severe drought and storms, but the damage to his crop after Hurricane Michael is the worst he ever saw.
He had 4,600 acres of cotton planted in Pulaski and Wilcox counties. It was one of the best crops he had in years, and he had just started to harvest it when the storm hit. He was able to harvest only about 300 acres.
The rest is likely a total loss.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “You are worrying about what you are going to do.”
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Dawson has about 1,500 acres of peanuts and those did not appear to be harmed by the storm.
The damage to agriculture overall in Georgia was still being assessed Thursday, but Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said early indications are bad.
“This could be the worst we’ve ever seen,” he told The Telegraph “It’s absolute devastation.”
The worst damage was in southwest Georgia, but Black said the destruction continued over a large swath across the state. He compared it to the damage of a tornado, except over about a 200-mile wide path. He said about 50 broiler chicken houses were destroyed.
Cotton appears to have been hit especially hard. The winds blew the cotton off the plants. Black said he saw photos from one field where a farmer had been harvesting up until the last minute. The storm picked the cotton off the plants about as thoroughly as the harvester.
“You couldn’t tell the difference from where he had stopped picking,” he said.
Jeff Cook, county agent for Peach and Taylor counties, said he spoke to a Peach County cotton farmer who estimated the storm blew away about half his cotton crop in at least one field.
One area of concern that might not have been as bad as expected in Middle Georgia is pecan trees. The remnants of Hurricane Irma did significant damage to pecan trees in the area last year, but the trees appeared to have fared better this time.
Storms probably strike more fear into pecan growers than other farmers because fallen trees could take decades to replace. And with the limbs laden with pecans this time of year, it doesn’t take much to bring limbs or whole trees down.
Robert Dickey, owner of Dickey Farms in Crawford County, mostly grows peaches but also has pecan trees. He said he was very worried about what the storm would do to the pecan trees but he saw little damage. Peach trees also survived the storm well, he said.
“We dodged a bullet,” Dickey said.
Pearson Farm outside of Fort Valley has about 3,000 acres of pecan trees, and the orchards were littered with limbs after the storm. But Lawton Pearson, a partner in the business, was not complaining.
“We are incredibly fortunate,” he said. “What we are seeing isn’t nearly as bad as last year. We are all breathing a sigh of relief.”
Pearson said while a lot of limbs are down, few whole trees have been lost and that’s different from Irma. He said he has gotten reports that pecan growers further south have been devastated with felled trees.
He said recent dry weather may have helped because that made trees less likely to topple over in the high winds. Also, he said, Irma likely took out some of the weaker trees.
Black said he’s received a call from the White House and been in touch with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Black said communications with Washington are good and that federal leaders have an understanding of the “gravity of the situation” in Georgia.
Telegraph corespondent Maggie Lee contributed to this story.