September 28, 2020,
Toppled trees, mangled fences, shredded crops, blown over barns and flooded fields have farmers in south Alabama scrambling in the wake of Hurricane Sally.
But yet there is that seed of hope.
The Category 2 storm came ashore Sept. 16 about 4:45 a.m. near Gulf Shores with winds up to 105 mph. Sally moved at a snail’s pace, as slow as 2 mph, across southern Alabama dumping torrential rains and pummeling property. There are no good times for a storm of this nature, but Sally hit just as harvest season was kicking off.
Farmers should have started digging peanuts the week the storm landed. Cotton, the largest row crop in the state, is still a few weeks away from harvest but the winds laid the plants over in the fields, tangling the stalks. That means it’ll be harder to pick and yields will be down. Vast acres of pecan orchards were uprooted by the storm. It’ll take weeks to determine the damage estimate, but it’s safe to say the figure will be in the hundreds of millions
If you don’t live on a farm, you still feel the impact. Agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry, generating a $70.4 billion annual economic impact.
Greg Bartl operates Lillian Cattle Co. in Baldwin County with his sons. It’s a five-generation livelihood. Along with the cattle operation, they row crop cotton, corn, peanuts and grain sorghum.
For most people, Baldwin County is the state’s leader in tourism, thanks to the Gulf Coast beaches. But Baldwin is also a major player in farming. It’s the largest county in the state, with 1,590 square miles. It is also the top producer for peanuts and pecans in Alabama.
“We should be 30% done in digging peanuts right now, but it’s too wet to get into the fields,” Bartl said. Peanuts grow underground. The nuts sitting in sodden ground makes harvest more difficult and cuts down on yield and quality. “We had a late variety of corn, and it was just tore to pieces. The grain sorghum is laid over and some of the seed heads are sprouting.
“We have to harvest the peanuts and grain sorghum to come back and plant winter grass in those fields for the cattle. So we’re behind.”
Most producers were expecting a good year across the board pre-Sally. But if you can’t get the crop out of the field, money doesn’t make it to the bank.
Along with the crop damage on the Bartl place, several barns and outbuildings were destroyed, along with the grain drying facility. Other barns and sheds lost roofs or had other damage. This is a family-run outfit, with nephews also working the land. The seven homes on the farm also received some damage.
The first thing that had to be done when the storm waned was round up the stock.
“We had to capture the cattle and get them all back behind fence,” Bartl said. “The fences are not in good shape at all. We cleared what we could to get around and got to work.
“If we can’t get into the fields because it’s too wet, there’s plenty of work to do. You just have to work where you’re able to work.”
More: The Gulf Coast tries to dig out after Hurricane Sally leaves damage in its wake
Farmers are born with the optimism gene. There is so much you can’t control from the market to international politics to fuel prices.
Oh, and don’t forget to add the weather to that list.
“We’ve been farming in Baldwin County for a long time,” he said. “You know what can happen. You know what’s going to happen, sooner or later. You just lower your head and get back to work.
“It’s all you can do.”
Over in Covington County Ricky Wiggins has the same outlook. He farms with his son, Russell, making it another fifth-generation operation. They run cattle and row crop peanuts and cotton.
“I made my first crop on this place in 1972, I’ve been here all my life, 70 years,” Ricky Wiggins said.
Their farm runs a stretch of about 50 miles along the Conecuh River. On the top end, up north of Andalusia, 8 to 10 inches of rain fell. On the south end, in Escambia County, more than 20 inches fell in the rain gauge.
More: Sally slashes through south Alabama, flooding rural areas
“It could have been worse,” Wiggins said Tuesday. “For us it was mostly a rain event, we didn’t have much wind damage. But we’ve had rain every day since Sally. We can’t get into the fields to see just how bad it is. The cotton had been laid over and tangled up. We’re a week late in digging peanuts.”
Defoliant is sprayed before cotton is picked. After the leaves drop, closed bolls will open and no leaves makes for a cleaner and easier harvest. Usually the Wiggins spray with a tractor. Not this year. The spraying will be done by a cropduster, which adds a major unexpected expense.
“We had a bad cotton crop in 2018, late getting it out,” Wiggins said. “This year it looked like it would be the year that made up for 2018. The cotton looked good. But …
“You know what you are dealing with. (Hurricane) Opal came right over us. Then we had Ivan 16 years ago. You just rebuild and hope for a better year next year.”
Hurricane Opal came ashore at Pensacola in October 1995 as a strong Category 3, causing extensive damage in the Florida Panhandle and Alabama. Ivan came in at almost the same spot and on the same day 16 years prior to Sally. Ivan was also a strong Category 3, causing extensive damage to Alabama and the panhandle.
Back in Baldwin County, Todd Cassenbaum looked over mangled pecan orchards. He farms with his wife, Hope. The decades old trees had limbs laden with pecans.
“Years’ worth of work is devastated,” he said. “We had a good crop coming before the storm. The wind was so hard the trunks rocked and fell. They just couldn’t take it.”
Replanting pecan trees is a sign of faith. Depending on variety and soil conditions it can take decades for the trees to begin peak production.
A relief fund has been set up to help farmers and producers affected by Sally
“When disaster strikes, I am always impressed by the people of Alabama and their giving spirits,” said Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell. “As we started receiving photos of damaged crops, barns and equipment, we also started getting questions from people about what they could do to help our farmers, and that’s why we’ve established this fund.”
Donations are tax deductible and may be made at AlabamaFarmersFoundation.org or by check payable to Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation at P.O. Box 11000, Montgomery, AL 36191. Please include “hurricane relief fund” in the check memo line.
“Most of our farmers had as good a crop as we’ve ever seen, and it was so close to harvest for cotton, soybeans, peanuts and pecans,” said Parnell. “It’s devastating to lose a crop that had so much promise. Our farmers are great people who are assisting each other with cleaning up the damage, and we’re so grateful to everyone across the state who is helping in some way, like donating to the relief fund.”
Alabama has more than 43,000 farms covering 8.9 million acres. The average farm is 206 acres. Cotton is the state’s largest row crop and is grown in 59 of Alabama’s 67 counties. Two-thirds of the state, or about 23 million acres, is covered in forestland. Eighty-five percent of the timberland is owned by non-industrial, private landowners. Alabama has the third most timber acreage in the 48 contiguous states, trailing only Georgia and Oregon. Alabama’s Top five commodities are : Poultry, cattle and calves, greenhouse sod and nursery, cotton and soybeans.
Source: Alabama Farmers Federation
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Marty Roney at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Hurricane Sally pummels south Alabama farmers as harvest kicks off, but hope survives